A porous border between the United States and Mexico. Men, women, and children desperately crossing into America illegally—in massive numbers. Corruption. Drugs. Violence.
Existential fears about the loss of a common “American” culture. Nativist rage expressed over the airwaves.
This is a 2014 story, but of course it is not a new story; remember the “Reagan Amnesty”? Released just four years before the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act, English director Tony Richardson’s superlative 1982 drama The Border is about as topical a film as it gets at the moment, but that is just icing on the cake, if you will, as far as the good reasons for revisiting it now are concerned. But do pocket your preconceptions: A close look at the Richardson film today reveals just how even-handed its “message” is, especially relative to some critiques offered at the time about its moralizing.
The film’s story concerns a border patrolman (Jack Nicholson) who relocates from California to Texas at the behest of his wife (Valerie Perrine), a materialistic sort who wants to trade up their trailer park residence for a duplex in El Paso—in order to live in a way that looks (to her, at least) more like the American Dream. We see from the get-go that Nicholson’s character is restless inside; it could be because he is saddled with a spouse that comes across like a nagging/ball-busting bubblehead—a recurring trait in Nicholson leading ladies (see: Five Easy Pieces, Carnal Knowledge, The Shining)—but it soon becomes clear that it’s a far more existential dilemma for him, one that is fast fueled to crisis when his new neighbor and border patrol partner (Harvey Keitel) introduces him to a corrupt scheme to collect money for shepherding illegals towards businessmen eager to take advantage of cheap labor.
Nicholson initially wants no part of it. Soon, though, he finds himself in that classic “Serpico” situation, where he is surrounded by people on the take, and quickly revealed to his colleagues as a troublemaker because he refuses to compromise his principles. He gets in even deeper by becoming invested in the well-being of one young Mexican mother (Elpidia Carrillo) he watches from afar—over a stretch of the borderline separated not by a fence but by an easily crossed shallow creek. At one point, she and her younger brother are detained when they attempt to cross over, with her infant child eventually stolen from her to be sold on the black market.
As Nicholson’s wife piles on debt with the purchases of a plastic-covered couch, a waterbed, and a swimming pool, and as the possibility of helping out the woman he has become obsessed with becomes apparent to him, he agrees to collaborate with Keitel in the border patrol’s immigrant-smuggling operation. Jack’s character finds himself—quite literally—“drawing a line in the sand,” though, when he discovers that Keitel has killed a truck driver who was attempting to shave a little profit off of his bottom line. “I’m not in this for murder,” he angrily tells Keitel; but in the process of retrieving the young woman’s missing infant, Nicholson will be forced, out of necessity, to confront that moral position, too.
The Border contains politics, but it doesn’t contain cheap politics—and this is one key to its lasting vitality. While the story is concerned with the discovery of empathy for the immigrants, there are never any serious arguments made, for example, that immigration laws are improper in and of themselves, or that the border between the U.S. and Mexico shouldn’t be enforced at all—as some of today’s overheated rhetoric would have you believe is happening today.
If this same story were to be attempted in a modern film, though, it’s a good bet that our protagonist’s dilemma would be couched in just such a stark moral choice between repelling “undocumented” immigrants or helping them reach a better life in America, laws be damned. And it’s also a good bet we’d have plenty of on-the-nose dialogue where the main characters litigated these issues in ham-fisted “left-right” confrontations.
The script for The Border presents its “social issue” concerns more matter-of-factly: appropriate to the era, the Mexicans are commonly referred to as “wetbacks” or “wets” by the border patrolmen; the conspiracy to smuggle some immigrants into the country is well-explained as a matter of pragmatic-if-unsavory capitalism; the problem of drug smuggling is evident and ugly; and the difficulty of performing the job of law enforcement at the border is shown to be the difficult and dangerous—and frustrating—occupation that it is. As for the “characters” of the largely nameless border-crossers, they are neither artificially ennobled nor demonized.
The same can be said for the film’s main characters. There are “villains” in the film, yes—we see them on both sides of the border—but for the most part, we’re just dealing with people engaged in hard times all around. The film’s three screenwriters deserve enormous praise for this quality in the writing, though their related credits show why this achievement might be less than a huge surprise: Deric Washburn previously worked on The Deer Hunter and Silent Running; Walon Green already had The Wild Bunch and Sorcerer in his back pocket; and David Freeman, five years later, penned the journalism drama Street Smart.
Devoted Jack Nicholson fans are well-acquainted by now with the different kinds of performances that make up (pardon the pun) “The Two Jacks.” There’s the Jack of Bob Rafelson films and Carnal Knowledge and Chinatown…and then there’s the “JACK” of The Shining and A Few Good Men and Batman. Any Nicholson performance can be thought of as weighted more heavily towards sensitivity or scenery-chewing, but often we’ll get an ideal mixture of the two—with maybe the perfect synthesis visible in his Oscar-winning work for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
In The Border, Nicholson gives a low-key performance that has been largely, and unjustly, forgotten; he mostly goes for subtlety and the slow burn here, in keeping with the mood of the entire film. We do get hints of “JACK” showpieces, though. When he loses his cool at a home cookout, dumping his barbecue grill into his own pool, it’s a toned-down recall of the famous diner flip-out in Five Easy Pieces. Conversely, the scene where Nicholson’s character reassures the young mother that he wants nothing in return for his benevolent actions—certainly not sex, as it becomes clear she has experienced in transactions with her own people—it predicts the kind of weary tenderness we would see five years later, with Nicholson’s illuminating turn as a Depression-era drunk in Ironweed.
Nicholson’s character in this 1982 picture carries over the “antihero” shadings made popular in the ‘70s; when he casually strolls across the border into Mexico it’s a key reminder of the sense of entitlement an “ugly American” can have, as well as a reflexive disregard for the laws they expect to apply to others. There’s one shocking moment that does “date” the film in an unexpected fashion—when Nicholson slaps his wife in a petulant fury. It’s an especially jarring moment, revealing how it wasn’t so very long ago that smacking your spouse was considered more of a momentary lapse of judgment than the criminal act of aggression it really is.
But the genius of The Border, finally, isn’t that it is the story of Big Issues; it’s instead the story of a man—or perhaps the story of a man and a woman—trapped in a scenario of grim and desperate moral complexities. It’s the inverse of the Casablanca idea, where, in a crazy world, the stories of two little people do matter a hill of beans. The social justice elements of the film, while providing a highly visible backdrop, are subordinate enough to the individual characters that the empathy the film generates isn’t a by-product of being “beat over the head” or having a message “shoved down your throat”—though it is fair to say some felt this way about the film in 1982.
That is a function of the changing times. The Border is heavy-handed by today’s standards in the same way that the Boris Karloff Frankenstein is filled with graphic horrors—which is to say: Not so much. Today, perhaps because of the extent to which the quality of political discourse has significantly degenerated into hysterical unreason, we can now see the film more clearly as the mature drama it is and always was.
One critic of the film proclaimed the title song by Ry Cooder (“Across the Borderline”) too guilty of underlining the film’s posture as a leftist cinematic tract. But look carefully at the lyrics now to see that, in fact, they are ingenious enough to be read as a message that might actually be agreed upon by both of the warring factions engaged in today’s political debate:
There’s a land, so I’ve been told
Every street is paved with gold
And it’s just across the borderline
And when it’s time to take your turn
Here’s a lesson you must learn
You could lose more than you ever hope to find
And when you reach the broken promised land
Every dream slips though your hand
Then you’ll know it’s too late to change your mind
‘Cause you pay the price to come this far
Just to wind up where you are
And you’re still just across the borderline
Recently, I heard conservative documentary filmmaker Dennis Michael Lynch opine on a Philadelphia morning radio program that the clear evidence for a conspiracy to transform this country for the worse from within was to be found in the fact that his local high school, for the first time, would be playing soccer as its homecoming game rather than football. Soccer, he emphasized with mockery, and then lamented, without irony, that this represented an assault on the sacrifices of those who died on the battlefields of the American Revolution. And then, he shed crocodile tears of indignation that his positions on the issues could somehow be unfairly regarded as either heartless or motivated by racial animus. It was a fairly stunning set of remarks.
Revisiting Tony Richardson’s film The Border is a powerful riposte to that kind of inanity; it is a film that meditates on the problem of illegal immigration in a more mature fashion, and does so in ways that are vastly superior to and more nuanced than much of today’s angry, paranoid, and craven discourse—and it achieves that through the mechanics of a strongly character-based, formula thriller that boasts one of the most underrated performances given by one of our most treasured living actors.