The Border (1982)
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This is an unabashedly simple movie, much to its credit. And that simplicity includes Jack. Almost all of the critics point out that this is Jack at his "UnJackest". Only one true "Jack" moment, and that is when he dumps the grill into that awful, tacky poolette and exclaims, "Soup's on!". And even that moment is appropriate to the situation, hilarious, and much needed comic relief.
'The Border' has every chance to drown in cliche, but to Tony Richardson's credit, it never does. The characters could so easily have become good guy/bad guy caricatures, but to the credit of an amazing supporting cast, they never do.
And OH what a supporting cast! Harvey Keitel is terrific, especially when he is trying to reign in his bimbo, drunken, horndog wife. Cat can handle the meanest border scum, but is a whipped puppy with Ms. Thang. Which leads to the superb performances of both Shannon Wilcox and Valerie Perrine as the Boobsey Twin Airheads from Hell. Check out their rendition of their high school cheerleading chant. Also loved Warren Oates as the crooked Border Patrol Chief, particularly the scene where he explains to the sleazy drop point bad guy (one character dangerously close to cliche) that their truck of "wets" got caught by a couple of honest border guards and "Goddamit, I ain't got no control over that! That's just gonna happen sometimes."
But for me, the supporting performance at the soul of this film is Elpidia Carrillo's heart-wrenching, moving portrayal of Maria. All she is asked to do is symbolize everything pure, noble, and long-suffering, to be the Mexican Madonna. And to do it with about 5 lines of dialogue in the entire film, and that is in Spanish. Oh, and she's about 18 years old and this is her first American film. And guess what? She's simply amazing, conveying more in a single expression than most actresses could in 10 pages of dialogue. Of course it helps to be born with one of the most expressive, open faces in the universe, and boy does she know how to use it. (Carrillo had a similar role, even named Maria, in Oliver Stone's 'Salvador' a couple of years later, and was equally as good. She was also outstanding as Jimmy Smits' wife in 'My Family'. She finally got her just acclaim a couple of years ago in Ken Louche's 'Bread and Roses', winning an ALMA and even having the critics talking Oscar, and for the lead in the Mexican historical epic 'The Other Conquest').
The scene that will always stick in my mind has Charley going to the sad hovel occupied by Maria and her brother to give them the money to pay a coyote to bring them across. Maria is confused, wondering why he would help them. Then she thinks she knows, and with a whole world of sad resignation on her young shoulders, without a word, begins to undress. The Jack/Charley that responds, telling her gently that she owes him nothing, that he just wants to to feel good about something, sometime, is so simple, so sweet, and so heart-felt that it may be one of Jack's finest, most authentic screen moments. Never mind that she doesn't understand a word; they connect. A simple but deeply moving scene; it connects.
Go rent this simple straightforward film with its fine acting and directing. In its simple way, it is a powerful, unforgettable classic.
Nicholson is a border guard who tries to resist the money available but his crazy wife (Valerie Perrine) just spends, spends, and spends like he was a Rockefeller. He finally joins with his neighbor and partner (Harvey Keitel) and runs some Mexicans across the border.
Charlie (Nicholson) still has some morals and that causes problems for his partner. He is also taken with Maria (Elpidia Carrillo), and that causes problems for their Mexican contact, so he sets him up to control him.
However, he can't control Charlie, and now even the boss (Warren Oates) is mad at him.
Tony Richardson's film has a lot of elements of Sam Peckinpah. Exciting to the end.
Music by the great Ry Cooder.
He plays an increasingly unhappy, and troubled Border patrolman seemingly powerless to do anything about the brutality and corruption he sees around him. Saddled with a shrill, materialistic wife, Nicholson portrays the desperation of a man trying to make a difference, and do the right thing.
Not an award-winner, but an effective, interesting character study.
Jack Nicholson plays a on-the-take border patrol cop trying to go straight, but surrounded by corruption on both sides of the fence. He finally has to choose between fitting in by being a dirt bag, and being true to himself and cutting his ties with his buddies and his family.
The border is not only a fence between two countries, it's a moral line between decency and indecency, between moral compromise and being a truly humane and compassionate person regardless of the consequences.
The acting is superb, and the the plot could not be more timely. So give this box office bomb a go soon! It's a real diamond in the rough.
The direction by Tony Richardson, who had his heyday in the sixties with films as varied as The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), Tom Jones (1963), and The Loved One (1965), all adapted from novels, is at times inspired and artistic, and at other times as ordinary as dishwater. I don't think he was able to make up his mind while directing this film about whether he wanted win an award at Cannes or Venice or to just sell some tickets. As it turns out he did neither as well as he might have. Nonetheless as a snapshot of poor Mexican immigrants (and would-be immigrants) as they clash with the border patrol culture twenty-some years ago The Border is definitely worth a look. Particularly vivid is the depiction of the absurdities and hypocrisies among the coyotes, the "wets," the border patrol rank-and-file, the law and the realities of life along both sides of the thin strip separating the promised land from the third world.
Nicholson plays Charlie Smith, a border patrol cop with a trailer trash wife (Valerie Perrine) who yearns to move up to the luxury of duplex living. In particular she wants to move in next door to her high school girlfriend Savannah (Shannon Wilcox) who is married to the "Cat" (Harvey Keitel). Charlie Smith is a bit of an innocent who was satisfied with his trailer home and his sexy, loving, but not overly sharp, wife Mary. When they do pick up and move to Texas he runs headlong into the corrupt lifestyle of the Cat and the cruel realities of his job which consists of arresting illegal immigrants and sending them back to Mexico. Meanwhile Mary isn't just sitting home twiddling her thumbs. Instead she is out buying water beds and dinette sets, overstuffed chairs and sofas, and other knickknacks that put a strain on the couple's budget which leads Charlie into temptation. But when taking kickbacks turns to murder, Charlie draws the line in the sand (literally as it happens) and he and the Cat have a rather rude falling out.
Meanwhile Charles spots Carrillo as the lovely Maria with babe in arms and a little brother at her side. Predictably the system cruelly exploits her, bringing Charlie to her rescue.
I think the striking contrast between Charlie's air-headed Mary and the desperate and needy Maria needed to be further explored. As it was played Charlie is just a good joe doing a good deed or two when in fact we know he is much more involved than that. I think the movie would have been improved by making him choose between the two women as he had to make the moral choice between going with the Cat's corruption or going against him.
See this for Jack Nicholson, one of the great actors of our time, who brings subtlety and veracity to a role that could have been ordinary, while giving us only a hint of the commanding and irreverent style that he would adopt in later years.
(Note: Over 500 of my movie reviews are now available in my book "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote!" Get it at Amazon!)
There is plenty of action and the story moves in response to the characters.
Freddy Fender and Ry Cooder provide memorable and haunting music that just makes the whole film so much more powerful.