Review: ‘Transpecos,’ starring Johnny Simmons and Gabriel Luna

The simplistic and underwhelming thriller Transpecos, the debut feature from short filmmaker Greg Kwedar, has a kernel of a good premise and few ideas how to pull it all off. Sometimes keeping things as uncomplicated as possible can be an asset to a twisty, sparse thriller, but in the case of Transpecos that mindset is a major hindrance.

Along the Mexican border in the Southwestern United States, a trio of border guards – boss Lou (Clifton Collins Jr.), wise veteran Lance (Gabriel Luna), and brash rookie Ben (Johnny Simmons) – go about their daily routine at a little used border crossing. One day during a routine stop, a jittery man tries to make a run for it, injuring Lou in the process. When they inspect the car, they discover 150 pounds of cocaine in the trunk. But instead of calling in their massive seizure, things aren’t what they seem.

It’s clear from the outset of Transpecos that Kwedar and co-writer Clint Bentley come from a background in short filmmaking. Structurally, there’s a decided bit of predictable repetition that occurs here. After the first twenty minutes have passed, a major, plot altering twist has to happen. The characters then deal with that twist. Then another twist. Then they deal with it. Repeat. As soon as the first major swerve comes to light, every other swerve seems to fall predictably into place, and the viewer can almost sense when, where, and in what order everything will get worse for these three men.

It feels like the viewer is missing something major here, namely a clearly defined sense of who each of these characters are. We kind of get a brief understanding of where Ben is coming from, but only because the plot requires it. There’s so little investment in the interior and exterior lives of these people that it makes a threadbare, predictable mystery all the less enjoyable. It’s a film where one watches a bunch of stuff happening, but most of it barely registers. As a result of an half-baked story with thin characters, Transpecos has little sense of escalation, and what twists it does have are so forced on could set their watch to them.

The actors do what they can, though. The atypical casting of Simmons at first seems a bit off, but quickly makes sense. Collins has always been a pro; the kind of person incapable of a bad performance. The real standout here, though, is Luna who gives the film every drop of emotion he has in the tank to try and make something spark to life here. They can’t overcome the lack of depth their characters suffer from, but their efforts are meritorious nonetheless.

The rote style of plotting and underdeveloped characters could be overcome with a bit of style, but Kwedar delivers a fairly static final product that doesn’t fully capture the bleakness, desperation, and hopelessness that the desert usually conveys. Furthermore, Kwedar and Bentley don’t really have anything to say other than unfurling the plot like a new roll of carpeting. The idea itself isn’t bad, the performances are decent, and the execution is more or less fine, but there’s still precious little about Transpecos worth talking about. And the one thing that a great thriller should do is that it should make the viewer think back on what they saw, or re-examine everything as if they’re looking at an open wound. Thinking back on Transpecos is about as deep as looking at a puddle that has accumulated in a shallow hole in the ground.

Transpecos opens at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto and Mayfair Theatre in Ottawa on Friday, September 23, 2016. It opens at City Cinema in Charlottetown on Friday, October 7, 2016.

Check out the trailer for Transpecos:

Andrew Parker
Andrew Parker fell in love with film growing up across the street from a movie theatre. He began writing professionally about film at the age of fourteen, and has been following his passions ever since. His writing has been showcased at various online outlets, as well as in The Globe and Mail, BeatRoute, and NOW Magazine. If he's not watching something or reading something, he's probably sleeping.