It’s always fun to come across a movie that doesn’t have a distributor and needs a boost because it’s really good and deserves it. This year at South by Southwest, that movie, at least for me, is "Transpecos."
It’s director by Greg Kwedar, who has been quietly living in Austin, working on various documentaries and other film projects since 2008.
"Transpecos," his directorial debut, has its premiere Sunday night and really shouldn’t be missed. It’s one of the best movies of the festival, and I’ve seen quite a few.
It focuses on three Border Patrol agents — and what happens when a particularly hard-nosed agent decides that a car trying to cross the border seems suspicious.
From that moment on, the tension ramps up, with twists and turns that reminded me of another Texas-based movie,many years ago — the Coen brothers’ "Blood Simple."
Kwedar and co-writer Clint Bentley went to the U.S. border with Mexico to do their basic research several years ago, talking with agents, hearing their stories, and trying to come up with a tale that would capture not only the loneliness and isolation but also the camaraderie and the dangers.
"They told us a lot of things that they wouldn’t tell their families," Kwedar says of his talks with agents. And the result is a screenplay that neither portrays them as saints nor as demons. They’re complicated. They’re flawed. Or, in other words, they’re just like everyone else.
Kwedar gets standout performances from his three leads: Clifton Collins Jr., who plays the hard-nosed, by-the-book agent Lou Hobbs. Collins, who’s in town for the premiere, will also be seen in the upcoming thriller "Triple 9," with Woody Harrelson and Casey Affleck. ("Triple 9" is also screening at SXSW.)
Gabriel Luna plays the most level-headed, sensible dude, Lance Flores, who tries to make things right after everything goes very wrong.
And Johnny Simmons, in a star-making turn, plays Benjamin Davis, the young rookie on the team who appears to have a lot to learn.
Simmons, who was born in Alabama but grew up in Dallas, says he tried to figure out his character by living during the shoot in southern New Mexico in an old, un-air-conditioned Airstream. That meant he slept under the stars on some of the hotter nights, and finally realized, as he puts it, that "I was looking at the same stars that people in Mexico were watching" — that the border was a human construct.
As viewers will see, there’s also another star in the making for "Transpecos" — Houston-born cinematographer Jeffrey Waldron. His wide, panoramic shots of the barren desert invoke not only beauty but also isolation — much like that felt by the agents who work there.
As Kwedar puts it, "the endlessness of the horizon is also a trap for those who can’t escape it."
Kwedar praises Waldron for his ability to shoot various scenes that reflect the 24 hours that play out on screen, mostly with natural light, starting with sunrise, then high noon, the sunset and the evening. In each environment, the cinematography is spot-on.
"Transpecos" premieres tonight at 9 at the Vimeo in the Austin Convention Center. It screens again at 11:30 a.m. Monday at the Alamo South and at 10:45 a.m. Thursday at the Alamo South.’
It’s in the narrative feature competition. I recommend you see it and vote for it.