It could be sweltering in its scenes under the Mexican sun, but you wouldn’t know it to watch Hostile Border, a film whose cool, washed-out colors capture a chilling sense of dread and isolation that builds throughout. At the center of this downbeat exercise is Claudia, a 20-something native-born Mexican who has been raised just over the border in the U.S. and doesn’t speak Spanish. With her cohorts, she hustles to make money and make the rent by skimming credit cards.
After getting pinched for the scam, she takes the advice of her counsel: probation and immediate deportation. Claudia leaves behind her mother in the States and hitches a ride to her father’s ranch, just a few miles over the border in Mexico. There, he lives with his mother and works a large tract of land while raising cattle. That same property is, unknown to him, being used by smugglers as a shortcut to move contraband and evade police.
Claudia doesn’t receive the warmest of welcomes upon her arrival. Her father is convinced she’s a lost cause, though her grandmother thinks her only failing is that she wasn’t taught to be good. Unfortunately, the very circumstances that should bring father and daughter close together—working side by side on the ranch—also give Claudia the knowledge she needs to once again engage in illegal activity. This time, however, her choice merits sympathy. With her life threatened, Claudia bargains with the young, arrogant leader of the trafficking outfit: She’ll be his new inside connection.
Director Michael Dwyer and screenwriter Kaitlin McLaughlin leave plenty of space and suggestions for seeing Hostile Border as a critique of immigration policy. Is it cruel to send Claudia back to a land that, though she was born there, is largely foreign to her? Does border control unintentionally encourage crime by forcing people to make life-or-death decisions? But such readings aren’t essential to the film, which works as compelling drama. For Dwyer, an experienced filmmaker, this is his first non-documentary feature as a director. He and the editing team take a less-is-more approach, moving the narrative along by juxtaposing scenes of Claudia working her father’s ranch with her reluctant role as accomplice.
McLaughlin, for whom this is her first feature-length screenwriting credit, gives her characters incisive dialogue that keeps the human relations front and center. She also knows the value of silence and its ability to convey fear, dread and loneliness. Whenever Claudia is in her father’s house, she is too aware of being an outcast to say anything. To her father, Claudia may as well be the kind of person who attracts trouble. As we review each decision she’s made, we wonder if we’d have done anything differently.
Director: Michael Dwyer
Writer: Kaitlin McLaughlin
Starring: Veronica Sixto, Julio Cedillo, Roberto Urbina, Jesse Garcia, and Jorge A. Jiminez
Release Date: April 15, 2016