Conor Allyn’s No Man’s Land is more than overwhelmed by its good intentions—it’s crushed by them. The film leaves few clichés unturned as it champions the belief that reaching peak empathy is as simple as walking in someone else’s shoes. Just about the only surprise here is that it isn’t border vigilante Bill Greer (Frank Grillo) but his son, Jackson Greer (Jake Allyn), handsome avatar of white complacency, who’s tasked with hitting a sort of learning trail after he accidentally kills a Mexican immigrant boy (Alessio Valentini) during an escalating confrontation near the Greer clan’s land on the Texas-Mexico border.
In an earlier scene in No Man’s Land, a group of immigrants are chased by Bill and his sons off of the family’s ranch, and after catching a young man in the stables, Jackson lets him run off with one of their chickens—a preamble that exists for the most part to position the young buck’s attainment of cross-cultural understanding as a matter of course. Also symptomatic of how prone the film is to laying all its cards on the table, we also get a scene in which the New York-bound Jackson is revealed to be more practical than his father, mother (Andie MacDowell), and older brother (Alex MacNicoll) about his ambitions to one day play with the Yankees, suggesting that he will find his true calling on a different kind of field.
After Bill tries to take the blame for the death of the Mexican boy and Texas Ranger Ramirez (George Lopez) sees through the man’s ruse, Jackson is spurred to ride south into Mexico across the Rio Grande astride his trusty steed, Sundance. As an actor, Jake Allyn gives poignant expression to his character’s guilt, and for a spell, No Man’s Land refreshingly flies, like its protagonist, by the seat of its pants. But as Jackson continues to play the part, per the film’s press notes, of the gringo “illegal alien,” across tender, lived-in scenes that are alive to the rhythms of everyday Mexican life, he grows more single-minded in his desire to travel to Guanajuato and seek forgiveness from Gustavo (Jorge A. Jimenez), the father of the boy he killed, and No Man’s Land starts to feel like a performance of allyship on the filmmakers’ part.
This is a puppy dog of a film, a less overwrought alternative than what we might have gotten from the pen of, say, Paul Haggis and Guillermo Arriaga. But subtlety isn’t its strong suit. The moment where Gustavo, after saying goodbye to his son’s corpse, and MacDowell’s Monica ride an elevator in silence speaks more deeply about the tenuousness of impasse than one in which Jackson, on a bus heading to Guanajuato, sells a boy on the value of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which he clearly sees as a reflection of his integrity.
Indeed, the show that the film’s screenplay, by Jake Allyn and David Barraza, makes of giving almost every major character a moment of cross-cultural exchange, so as to awaken them fully to the binational realities of where they live, is so calculated that it stops No Man’s Land in its tracks. Only the tatted, gangly cayote (very broadly played by Andrés Delgado) who’s out for Jackson’s blood is spared scrutiny under the trope of inherent goodness, because apparently a film claiming thriller bona fides, like a civics lesson, needs at least one bad hombre.