The Mexico of Carlos Carrera’s Backyard terrifyingly resembles—and yet comfortingly confirms the alarmist subtext of—an American funhouse nightmare of subaltern stereotypes: Corruption has leeched through every social stratum, from indolent municipal executives to workaday laborers who lack the savvy to benefit from their turpitude and merely perpetuate the slimy ambiance; women are subjugated by all, including themselves, but especially by significant others and guardians gripped by various appetites; and the gradient of urban evil is easy enough to decipher by following the varying manifestations of gringoismo (several of the film’s most dastardly creeps either speak English or sport a pale complexion, and one of them is Jimmy Smits). Focusing on a real-life series of female rape-murders in Ciudad Juarez all but dismissed by local authorities until investigated by Ana de la Reguera’s officer and sexy tough-girl exemplar Blanca Bravo (a fabrication, if the piss-poor allegorical nomenclature isn’t enough of a tip-off), Backyard attempts to study the self-punishing psychology and hegemonic political climate that maintains the menacing law of the junkyard and sex worker-laden land. But while a handful of scenes possess the icily obtrusive splash of a border crossing wakeup gesture, the remainder of the movie’s conscience is drowned out by stultifyingly inane dialogue, contrived essays at violence-threatening tension, and a sour desert-sepia color scheme that seems inspired by lower-echelon TV-crime melodramas.
The same killings were explored by director Gregory Nava in the even further guero-washed Bordertown, but Carrera more compellingly bifurcates his narrative and follows Juanita (Asur Zágada), a new arrival to a local, NAFTA-established maquiladora who gradually has her industrious, opportunist spirit broken down by insidiously flattering sexual advances that manipulate her into mistaking genital monetization as distaff liberation. Juanita is meant to be taken as an emotional personification of a pervasive type, and both Carrera and screenwriter Sabina Berman render her plunge from unique, empathy-inspiring innocence to dime-a-dozen “My body is my body!” proclamations of repressed confusion with merciless details; she attracts the interest of likely the only non-rapist in Juarez, only to repay his respect with flirtatious perfidy. But whatever sexual trenchancy is managed in the chicken/egg observation of female auto-objectification and its abusively primal masculine response is neutralized by Bravo’s concurrent detective work, which deteriorates into reductive depictions of sexist belligerence early on and never recovers (a choice example: Bravo’s superior notes that “Women make good nurses and bad cops!” directly before dusting off the ever-popular “I’m taking you off the case!” chestnut).
To be sure, as a pressing dramatization of women’s rights principles, the film is a minor success. Though it laughably scrapes together some semblance of incriminating closure as a finale, Carrera and Berman ensure our awareness of the staggering death count in Juarez and its equally incalculable mysteries, ultimately suggesting that the gender and economic configuration of the city itself may be to blame (i.e., of course, NAFTA). Even the massive heaps of old tires that complete the deadened milieu seem like wrinkly, anti-yonic symbols. And, naturally, preparing such a statement for consumption in a nation where even a female’s right to choose is scoffed at as irreligious madness requires the use of heavy-handed manipulation, though this assuredly is not without aesthetic merit; a scene illustrating the apparently ubiquitous practice of asphyxiating girls to death mid-coitus for the vaginal pressure change is laced with tremblingly poetic sorrow. But while Backyard persuasively, and sensitively, portrays the ignored plight of young Mexican women ensnared in a chronic and occasionally terminal cycle of hard labor and machismo battering, the potentially thousands of Juarez victims deserve more than Mexi-caricatures and a heroine that must have taken cosmetology and modeling classes while attending police academy.
Backyard will play on June 22 and 23 as part of this year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival. For more information click here.