While Highway Patrolman takes on the semblance of a sun-blasted, Mexican desert noir in its climactic scenes, it’s irreducibly a character study of young Pedro Rojas (Roberto Sosa) and his disillusionment with his job and its place in the social order. A Mexico City native who’s the pride of his family (save an estranged father) when he graduates from the federal highway police academy, Pedro is a baby-faced bantamweight with a puffed-out chest as he begins work as a patrullero around the northern town of Mapimi, stopping rural drivers on suspicion of smuggling imported groceries, or for misdemeanors like transporting their farm workers on cargo trucks. This last offense by a successful rancher’s daughter (Zaide Silvia Gutierrez) nets Pedro a bride, but before long he adjusts to the occupational routines of taking cash envelopes from farmers who lack permits to transport their wares on the isolated “pig route,” and getting rip-roaring drunk at the cantina where his favorite prostitute (Vanessa Bauche) plies her trade upstairs. (His pregnant wife reacts by holding a knife to his throat until he produces a wad of his under-the-table largesse: “Why didn’t you say you were working?”)
Alex Cox, the British UCLA film grad best known for his cult faves Repo Man and Sid and Nancy, makes the patrolman’s tragedy a slow defeat, even when he gains some measure of vengeance for the fate of his buddy-in-arms (Bruno Bichir) at the hands of gringo drug-trade bandits. Serving producer Lorenzo O’Brien’s jaundiced but uncynical screenplay, Cox keeps his trademark touches of surrealism in check, save for a fleeting vision of a skeleton on an ash heap in the middle of a police shrink’s office; a less jejeune set piece features Pedro’s phantom dad looming over his son, who lies wounded in the leg by cocaine cowboys, and hectoring him for becoming an ineffectual cop. The director’s political concerns are still there in the omnipresent tentacles of the America’s hypocrisy over narcotics, but erupt into blatant commentary when the grieving cop hurls a bottle of tequila at the televised image of George H.W. Bush. Highway Patrolman doesn’t even indulge in sentimentality toward the prostitute-addict sweetheart, who receives advice to “die at home” if she can’t get clean with the dirty money Pedro dumps on her cathouse bed, and straightens out enough to make long-term demands on her resigned lover in their final scene. “Paying Taxes Is Participating” reads a roadside billboard in this hard-edged story’s last shot, but its enduring image is of its young patrolman jerkily breaking into a limping trot that leads only to death or a non-cathartic dose of revenge.
The video transfer is clean and striking, showing a close visual kinship with the dread and beauty found in the Mexican location shooting of influential '60s and early-'70s "anti-westerns" like The Wild Bunch. (And as Alex Cox points out in his commentary, the desert skies did a lot of work for him.) The stereo soundtrack often has a DIY low-budget spareness, but effects, dialogue, and the Zander Schloss guitar-picked score are all clear and subtly mixed.
In the feature-length commentary track, Cox and writer-producer Lorenzo O'Brien discuss the heavy use of "moving masters," long handheld takes (sans Steadicam) by cinematographer Miguel Garzón that lend a neorealist flavor to the milieu; the native film culture's stalwart actors, cast in small roles, giving Highway Patrolman a flavor of "the Towering Inferno of Mexican cinema"; and how the federal highway force's objections to the script's depiction of corruption and attrition in the ranks led the design team to invent their own police "corporation" for dramatic purposes. The two also express how the movie's fatalism, in which a naif's will to do good is crushed by the reality of the system, was a personal reaction
to the failure of their previous film, Walker, to make even a negligible impact on the debate over U.S. policy in Central America.
A retrospective featurette, which like the commentary seems to date from a 2004 U.K. disc, has Cox interviewing O'Brien, composer Zander Schloss (a onetime member of the Circle Jerks who has more to say about his early-'90s drug haze than the score), the production designer, and a pair of casting directors, one of whom, Claudia Becker, chose actors she had placed years earlier in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, only the most direct connection in a film that has some of the grim absurdism of Sam Peckinpah's oeuvre. Also among the supplements is Cox's UCLA thesis film, Edge City, a Nicolas Roeg-influenced mix of paranoia, somnambulant menace, and SoCal New Age humor. (A hippie chick named Krishna says of her Big Sur commune, "The karma got bad…There was a hepatitis scare. I came here for some ludes!") It's chiefly undermined, as Cox cheerfully admits in the brief video monologue "From Edge City to Mapimi," by his own wispy lead performance, but there are kicky visual rhythms and evocative footage of L.A. street life circa 1978.
Alex Cox judges this to be his most "unified" and best film, and both the feature and the production history recounted in this package attest to the artistry of its unromanticized, downbeat vibrations.