While smartly avoiding the border-crossing-as-occasion-for-genre-kicks approach that doomed Cary Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre, Northless, director Rigoberto Perezcano’s own take on a man determined to make his way north to the United States, hasn’t hit on a consistently sustainable approach to replace it. Quiet and reflective where Sin Nombre was noisy and tense, Perezcano’s film seems far more concerned with documenting what the experience of a potential border crosser might actually be like. No vengeance seeking gangsters follow the film’s deglamorized lead Andrés (Harold Torres) as he attempts to enter California, while the film understands that, unlike Sayra’s first-time’s-the-charm success in the Fukunaga picture, most potential border-crossers require multiple attempts to breach the gap (Andrés makes three trips in the course of the film).
But Andrés is lucky; after being picked up by border patrol, he’s returned to Mexico relatively unscathed. As Cata (Sonia Couoh), one of the women who works at the Tijuana bodega where he gets a job after his first failed crossing, explains, her husband was beaten heavily on each of his first three attempts, before successfully making it across on his fourth. Cata’s sadness when she tells Andrés that her husband has effectively abandoned her is one of the moments in the film where the characters’ situations are most acutely felt, communicating something of the liminal state in which many Tijuanans live, subsisting in a town where everyone is either waiting to cross or has been left behind by those who already have.
Still, since most of the film is devoted its relative cipher of a lead character as he bides his time, Perezcano and his co-screenwriter Edgar San Juan have to devise enough material to fill out the picture, turning to the time-honored device of the romantic interest. Actually, Andrés is blessed by having not one but two attractive women drawn to him. While winning Cata’s heart takes some work, the company of Ela (Alicia Laguna), the lonely older woman who owns the bodega, requires no such efforts. In a mirrored pairing of scenes taking place in a local bar suffused with a lurid red glaze, Ela seduces Andrés while, later, in his turn, he seduces Cata.
Although both these seductions are preceded by scene-setting conversations in which the women each reveal that their husbands have already crossed and haven’t been heard from and Andrés informs them that he has left behind his own wife and children, it’s difficult to know what to do with these tentative romantic flowerings or to assess the film’s attitude toward them. Are we to see them as temporary moments of happiness amid a grueling uncertainty or a falling into temptation in an unstable border town? It’s hard to say given the perfunctory treatment they’re granted, but since, despite this tentativeness, these segments form a good chunk of the film’s content, they have the unfortunate effect of overshadowing the modest but precisely observed insights into the would-be immigrant’s plight that Perezcano has succeeded in establishing.