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Jack Nicholson is at his best playing a burned-out border patrol officer in a small Texas town.

Published June 30, 1998 3:14PM (EDT)

Over the credits of 1982's "The Border," Freddy Fender sings "Across the
Borderline," a song written for the film by Ry Cooder, John Hiatt and Jim
Dickinson. The lyrics tell an old story.

There's a land

So I've been told

Every street is paved with gold

And it's just across the borderline ...

And when you reach the broken promised land

Every dream slips through your hand

You'll lose much more than you ever hoped to find.

Fender (nee Baldemar Huerta) was 45 and six years past his last Top
40 hit when he sang that song. He had lived a version of it: years of
playing the Tex-Mex circuit and a stretch in prison before a brief taste of
mainstream success in the '70s. But you don't need to know that because the
story of dreams that persist despite being dashed again and again is all
there in Fender's high vibrato. Only the worst kind of cynic would think
that the dream he envisions in this song is a lie. The streets of gold
exist for Fender because he's seen them, walked on them. He knows what it
costs to even imagine seeing them again ("You pay the price to come this
far/Just to wind up where you are"), and yet he won't give up that hope.

The American Dream is so familiar a notion to us that perhaps we're ready
to dismiss it entirely as propaganda. That's the way it's been used, the
way it will be used this coming Fourth of July weekend by commentators and
politicians. In "The Border," it's dreamed by immigrants and citizens
alike. This movie is the story of Maria (Elpidia Carrillo), a young Mexican
woman who tries again and again to cross the Rio Grande into Texas with her
infant son and her 12-year-old brother. Maria and others like her are
picked up by the border patrol, processed and sent back across the river to
await their next chance.

"The Border" is also the story of Charlie (Jack Nicholson), a man who's
joined the Texas border patrol hoping to lose the crummy feeling that had
grown on him like lichen during his years as an INS agent making futile
busts in L.A. sweatshops. Charlie has seen the sweatshop owners go
untouched while he arrested a few hapless workers to meet his quota. He
knew they'd be back in the same jobs in no time. He takes the Texas border
patrol job at the prodding of his wife, Marcy (Valerie Perrine, in a
note-perfect caricature of cheerful, mindless consumerism), whose version
of the American Dream is purely material, no more than a new house in a
planned suburb and the cheap furniture she fills it with. What Charlie
finds is a job that feels more futile than the one he left behind and a
racket that makes him feel dirtier than he ever imagined possible.

- - - - - - - - - -

"The Border" takes dead aim at the senselessness of U.S. immigration policy,
the hypocrisy of a country that has long preened as the haven of immigrants
while deriving much of its prosperity from cheap, illegal labor and the
endless back-and-forth dance between the border patrol and the "illegals."
About the most compassion an honest border patrolman can offer is to wait
until the illegals are out of the river before he arrests them (if he wades
in after them, a co-worker tells Charlie, they'll hunker down to hide and
get pneumonia). The corrupt officers won't even do that. They're raking in
money ferrying illegals over the border to work as farmhands. Cat (Harvey
Keitel), Marcy's girlfriend's husband, offers Charlie a cut of this
home-grown slave trade, and Charlie at first refuses. But stretched tight by
Marcy's expenditures on her "dream house," he gives in. What he can't
stomach are the even dirtier dealings he stumbles onto.

The Mexican hood who rounds up the workers for Cat and Charlie arranges for
Maria's baby to be stolen from her while she's in detention. There's money
to be made selling babies to childless American couples. The film
unashamedly holds up Maria as an image of uncorrupted purity (and Carillo
has the unaffected beauty to pull off this Madonna role). Charlie has seen
her in the course of his patrols. To him, she's the single good thing in
the whole crummy world he's landed in. "The Border" becomes the story of
Charlie's determination to get her baby back. He knows he can't change the
immigration policy, weed out the corruption in the patrol or guarantee
Maria a life of happiness and prosperity. All he can do is reunite her with
her child. When Charlie goes to visit Maria in her village to tell her he's
arranged passage for her and her brother across the border, she begins to
undress, thinking this is what he expects in return. "You don't owe me
anything," Charlie tells her. "I wanna feel good about something sometime."

The entire movie exists on this simple, straightforward level. The
director, the late Tony Richardson, and the screenwriters, Walon Green,
Deric Washburn and David Freeman, are tackling a big subject, but they never
get preachy or grandiose. "The Border" is a tight, brutal action melodrama.
Once Charlie has decided to retrieve Maria's baby, he has to face down his
fellow border guards, including his boss (played by Warren Oates, in his
penultimate film, as the embodiment of malignant authority), who are
determined to keep their lucrative arrangement going. Richardson doesn't
turn "The Border" into a revenge movie. The violence here is sudden and
horrible; there's no elation when the bad guys get it. That's part of what
keeps the story of Charlie's quest to redeem himself from falling into
sentimentality: Even doing this good deed, he can't extricate himself from
the ugliness around him.

As Charlie, Nicholson gives the least heralded major performance of his
career. There's none of the mugging or grinning he's come to rely on. And
Nicholson gets at the sadness of a man waking up to the regrets he's come
to take for granted and determined not to add to them. Charlie becomes
aware of his capacity for decency, but because of all the crap he's
swallowed, he denies himself the luxury of thinking of himself as decent.
This is the sort of performance that makes you respect the choices of the
actor as well as the character he plays.

If anything unites the characters in "The Border" it's that each acts as if
the American Dream is there for the taking. What they do to realize it
becomes the movie's litmus test. For Cat, it's providing a (materially)
better life for his family. He never makes the connection between the son
he's providing for and the children he's stealing or selling into slavery.
For Charlie, the Dream is the simple chance to "feel good about something
sometime." The movie's final shot -- Maria and Charlie standing together in
the middle of the Rio Grande -- has the deep, becalmed beauty of a Pietà.
Only the American flag waving in the background, as elusive and high as the
catch in Freddy Fender's voice, tells you that nothing is settled. It may
look like a dream, but it's no mirage.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Immigration Reform Latin America Mexico Texas