Jack Nicholson Finds Trouble at the U.S./Mexican Border



Within every man there is a border. Once he crosses it, there is no going back.

The American Dream is a slippery thing.  For some, it’s simply the opportunity to work hard and achieve some sort of satisfaction.  For others, it’s a perceived entitlement consisting of a comfortable house, perhaps with a pool in the backyard.  Although these interpretations vary tremendously, they have at least one thing in common: they both fade quickly in the harsh face of the wake-up call.

In the 1982 moral drama The Border, Jack Nicholson plays Charlie, a henpecked border patrol officer who wants to do right but finds himself willing to venture outside the legal lines if need be.  One day, his wife, Marcy (Valerie Perrine) decides that they’re moving to El Paso.  Finally, they will transcend their go-nowhere mobile home/TV dinner existence and have a true house of their own.  

This opportunity comes courtesy of her old friend, Savannah (Shannon Wilcox), who happens to be married to a more successful border patrolman, Cat (Harvey Keitel).  Charlie, meanwhile, grumbles his way through this transition he knows they can’t afford.  Marcy, on the other hand, begins furnishing the place on credit.  Soon enough, the yard is dug out for an in-ground pool.  Charlie, trying to play it straight at work but stretched impossibly thin at home, finds himself open to Cat’s invite into lucrative corruption, the kind of activity they might consider “work adjacent”.  This is when a line in film’s trailer becomes particularly poignant:

His rage is unnerving. His anger, penetrating.  His dilemma, riveting.  He is as divided as the land itself.

From Charlie’s El Paso stationing, Mexico is a quick hopscotch across a particularly shallow portion of the Rio Grande.  When a young mother’s (an early role for Elpidia Carrillo, if not her first) hoodlum brother swipes the hubcaps off of Charlie’s patrol vehicle, she’s able to hand them back to him with ease.  Such uncomplicated interactions between the two sides is, however, all too rare.  A reoccurring sight throughout The Border is groups of Mexican citizens popping up on the U.S. side via tunnels and secret passages, only to immediately scatter at the sight of the authorities.  Often, Charlie and his coworkers will pounce, usually apprehending at least one Mexican who’s attempting to smuggle in illegal drugs.  Just as often, they’ll look the other way on a group of day laborers just hoping to score a day of work.

Director Tony Richardson joins fellow Englishman Alex Cox in having made a brutal, poignant look at Mexico.  Their view may be forever labeled that of outsiders, though their depictions of the realities of the country and its people are as well-informed as any based on this side of the pond.  That said, Richardson’s The Border differs greatly from Cox’s Highway Patrolman, in that the former’s uniformed protagonist is an American who spends more time stateside.  Indeed, the real meat of The Border is in its depiction of illegal border-hopping, and the day to day grind of the patrolmen charged with keeping it secure.  This being a 1982 film, any moderately informed viewer knows that this hot-button issue has only intensified exponentially in the decades since.  Richardson, though, is not particularly interested in taking a stand on the matter that one might consider “political”.  Rather, he’s all about showing the realities of the situation at the time through the lens of a slow-burning morality tale.

Kino Lorber Studio Classics has done a bang-up job in maintaining the blue-skied mundanity of this sometimes violent, dust-clouded world.  The disc features a few vintage radio ads for the film, as well as a commentary by film critic and author Simon Abrams.  Abrams is committed to presenting a wide variety of information pertaining to both the film and the U.S./Mexican situation circa 1982.  He’s done his homework, as evidenced in the old news articles he spends time reading out loud.  It’s not a commentary presentation that one would consider polished, but it’s got it where it counts.  Here’s hoping Abrams is given further opportunities to sharpen his commentary skills.

The Border may not be the best work of all parties involved, but it’s a solid film, nonetheless.  It’s lonesome blue-collar Southwestern aesthetic sticks, and Nicholson plays his part with a tempered everyman nature that couldn’t be further from the scenery-chewing parts he’s most famous for.  For a thought-proving film that deals with an issue that most regrettably continues to traffic in dehumanization and controversy, get to The Border ASAP.