Trans-Pecos is a geographical area encompassing westernmost Texas, between the Pecos River and the Mexican border. It’s also a psychological zone, denoting in frontier mythology a land without God or law, where the only currency is violence and the sole tool of justice is the gun. This is made clear in the prologue to Transpecos, when, against the backdrop of an empty desert, one man casually kills another for no discernible reason. Like Cain’s murder of Abel, this scene of primal violence takes place in a land seemingly untouched by man and immune to any civilizing process. We learn later that this execution is part of the war between U.S. Border Patrol agents and the drug cartels that either kill, bribe, or elude them in order to ply their trade.
The Greg Kwedar film follows three Border Patrol agents (Johnny Simmons, Gabriel Luna, and Clifton Collins Jr.) over the course of a day as they deal with the aftermath of a border inspection gone awry. By focusing on the actions of these men within a narrow narrative framework, Transpecos elides larger political and economic questions about America’s immigration policies and its war on drugs. Rather, it explores the role that free will plays in the lives of those most affected by these policies—men and women thrust into a violent world defined by laws and enmities not of their making.
Though inhibited by the hardships and handicaps thrust upon them, these characters aren’t treated as passive victims; rather, each is shown to be an agent in command of their own destiny. When rookie agent Davis (Simmons) claims that his circumstances force him to break the law, his older colleague, Hobbs (Collins Jr.), replies, “This isn’t happening. You’re doing this.” In stressing personal accountability, the film reveals itself to be an existential parable in the tradition of the western genre, reflecting a uniquely American ethos that posits the individual as being ultimately responsible for his or her self-creation and self-destruction. Here, at the border between the U.S. and Mexico, it’s only our personal moral codes that determine our behavior.
Violence in Transpecos is sparse, but the filmmakers use it with a narrative precision that highlights the unforgiving consequences that accompanies every choice in this desolate borderland. While the Border Patrol agents ostensibly serve the strict legal code of the nation they represent, the depicted reality of the war on drugs forces them to operate in a moral gray area of their own devising. The brief acts of brutal violence, committed casually by the cartels and unwillingly by the agents, remind us that the consequences of personal choices in this world are unforeseeable. Rather than distracting from it, like many recent exploitation films dealing with similar subject matter, the violence here emphasizes the moral conflicts at the heart of America’s struggle with illegal immigration and the war on drugs.
The Border Patrol agents don’t enact the law so much as they embody it, deciding its limits and applicability. But as the stark desert landscape depicted in the film makes clear, this isn’t a land made for humans; all who enter it are trespassers, and their various, conflicting codes of conduct and laws come to feel arbitrary. Yet, even in this nihilistic setting, whose empty grandeur makes every conflict appear as a personal struggle rather than merely one aspect of a larger geopolitical war, objective notions of right and wrong find a way of manifesting themselves.
The decisions of individual coyotes (smugglers of illegal immigrants), Border Patrol agents, and even teenage drug traffickers place members from each group on both sides of the moral divide. Some agents uphold the quiet dignity of the law while others betray it, and a few traffickers find it in themselves to spare the lives of those paid to track, jail, and deport them. The film’s ultimate lesson seems to be that mercy can exist even in the most inhumane of places, alongside the vast evil that always threatens to subsume it. Like violence, one chooses to commit an act of mercy, and neither laws nor socioeconomic circumstance can ever guarantee that one will prevail over the other.