❉ Nick Clement presents his assessments of cinematic gems and cult oddities. This week, Jack Nicholson and Harvey Keitel in ‘The Border’.
The 1982 film The Border, starring Jack Nicholson, Harvey Keitel, Warren Oates, and Miss Tessmacher, oops, I mean Valerie Perrine, feels like it could have been released last month, still as topical and as vital as it was upon first release. Directed by Tony Richardson (Blue Sky, The Hotel New Hampshire) and written by Deric Washburn (Silent Running, The Deer Hunter, Extreme Prejudice), Walon Green (The Wild Bunch, Sorcerer), and David Freeman (Street Smart), The Border is a slow moving and purposefully solemn film, one of grave consequences and ultimately desperate actions, with morally ambiguous characters dominating the landscape.
Nicholson plays a tired and demoralized Texas border patrolman, who after years of viewing corruption of all forms from all around him in various posts, decides to do something good for someone else. He’s tasked with nighttime shifts looking for illegal immigrants trying to pass into the United States, and unfortunately, he’s allowed a front row seat to tragedy, dishonesty, and sadness all around him. I could never imagine this film being made today at the studio level, which is a shame, because movie-stars used to get films like this made. Nowadays, this would be an indie all the way from start to finish, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just more an observation of the dramatic shift in taste and creative drive by the studios.
The plot kicks into gear when the baby of a young Mexican girl is kidnapped with the intentions of being sold/adopted, and Nicholson decides to take a stand against his emotionally and spiritually bankrupt superiors, going up against them with the best of intentions but possibly not the best amount of resources.
There’s a major “fuck the man” vibe all throughout The Border, with some very caustic notes about superiority and the false sense of American pride that runs through some individuals. Nicholson is constantly at odds with his bimbo wife (Perrine, perfectly annoying) and his morally corrupt co-worker (Keitel, practically baby-faced here and yet still menacing), and while there’s a simmering rage boiling from within the heart of his multi-layered character, Nicholson never goes over the top, letting everything come to him as opposed to attacking it with overt bravado. This is one of the legendary actor’s more effective and unsung performances, and from what I’ve read, he’s long considered it one of his best contributions to cinema. And while he’s certainly gripping in an unusually low-key way all throughout The Border, I’m not exactly sure if everything about the film works, and I suspect that the ending went thru various discussions and versions, because it doesn’t necessarily play out as one would expect.
The spirit of ’70s cinema is still very much in tact all throughout The Border despite the film being released in the early ’80s, but the ending feels a bit soft for some reason; it’s in this moment where the film loses some of its intended gut-punch impact. I gather there were some behind the scenes issues during production, which might explain the relatively pedestrian ending. Richardson’s dry film-making style doesn’t bring a lot of visual spice to the proceedings, but I guess the dourness of the material suits the simple aesthetic. And yet, this is an angry, outraged film, with brutal violence during the climax, and it paints an ugly portrait of the harsh realities that await people of less fortunate status, and how people have more than likely continuously abused the faulty immigration system that’s been set in place for the last 30 years in America to maximize their own personal bottom line. Available on DVD but crying out for a refurbished Blu-ray special edition, The Border is an important and still relevant piece, and even if it wasn’t a hit with theatrical audiences at the time of its release, is certainly worthy of reconsideration.
❉ Nick Clement is a freelance writer, having contributed to Variety Magazine, Hollywood- Elsewhere, Awards Daily, Back to the Movies, and Taste of Cinema. He’s currently writing a book about the works of filmmaker Tony Scott.
❉ He is also a regular contributor for MovieViral.com, a site dedicated to providing the best news and analysis on viral marketing and ARG campaigns for films and other forms of entertainment.