Bloody Vendettas Cross ‘No Man’s Land’ in a Drama About the Borders That Divide Us

No Man’s Land” has a strong concept about the lives directly impacted by the current state of the U.S. border with Mexico. There is a constant flow of individuals moving across our hemisphere, most trekking in search of a better existence. Sometimes it can lead to confrontation, confusion and death. These ideas still manage to get through in this small, vibrant drama, even when it gets overloaded with some needless plot baggage. At heart it’s an old-fashioned western about men running away from tragedy and others thirsting for revenge.

Like many westerns this is a film of wide spaces. Bill Greer (Frank Grillo) and his sons, Jackson (Jake Allyn) and Lucas (Alex MacNicoll), have a ranch in the “no man’s land” situated between the Rio Grande and U.S. border walls. Lucas is the natural farmhand while Jackson’s talent for baseball makes him college-bound. However, the Greers have been dealing undocumented migrants crossing through, sometimes spooking the cattle unintentionally. This reality will bring them into collision with Gustavo (Jorge A. Jimenez), a Christian who helps migrants make the journey across the borderlands. He’s technically a coyote, but not the violent extortionist sort. One night while making the crossing, Gustavo and his latest band of migrants are confronted by the Greers and in the confusion Lucas is shot as well as Gustavo’s young son, Fernando (Alessio Valentini), who dies. Fernando was shot by Jackson, who flees across the Rio Grande into Mexico while Bill takes Lucas to the hospital. A small manhunt begins practically led by a lone Texas Ranger, Ramirez (George Lopez). Gustavo also wants to find Jackson to avenge his son.

As a classic tale of vendettas and tragic misconceptions, “No Man’s Land” starts off well enough. It’s clear director Conor Allyn, working from a screenplay by his brother Jake and David Barraza, at least knows what the film is trying to say. It’s another parable inspired in what is thankfully now the post-Trump era, where the issue of the border raises heated points of view. The tragedy at the heart of the plot is the result of people crossing from one country to another, which then results in Jackson making his own migration into Mexico to escape the law. It’s not so much a crime drama as a redemptive journey. Story elements from other novels or films like “All the Pretty Horses” are instantly recognizable. Jackson hitchhikes down a road with his horse Sundance and just by luck gets picked up by a rancher in need of an extra worker. But of course the rancher has a beautiful daughter, Victoria (Esmeralda Pimentel), who generates some unrequited sexual tension with Jackson. The two actors do have wonderful chemistry. The editing here is a bit confusing however, as Jackson manages to break horses, endear himself to Victoria’s family and prepare to journey to Guanajuato to seek Fernando’s home, all before Lucas even has surgery back in Texas. It’s a lesson in how good directing and acting can mask such oddities.

Allyn uses these Mexico segments to strongly bring across the idea that the border between both nations is an invisible barrier. While riding a bus a Mexican English teacher reminds Jackson he is technically still in America, he simply crossed into the Latin part. At one point he admits he was never even aware Mexico was this big. He has to pick up some Spanish while everyone else has obviously learned basic English catch phrases. And the way he looks at Victoria needs little translating when she takes him to the bus station. The writing expertly reminds us this is all a temporary respite from the guilt weighing on Jackson, a guilt personified by the way he can’t even go to a bar with the other ranch hands without seeing Fernando’s hallucination. “No Man’s Land” has little of a feeling of adventure because tragedy is what drives the narrative. There are some excellent moments of suspense, including a scene where Jackson is nearly captured on a bus, but Allyn cares more about telling a meaningful story.

That element would be even more powerful if the movie would stop piling on some extra levels to the plot that are either half-way or unnecessary. We don’t get to know Gustavo all that well, except the basic fact that he’s some kind of preacher who guides migrants across the border “for the church.” It’s not necessarily explained. He also disappears for a vast amount of screen time only to then remerge with Luis (Andrés Delgado), an evil coyote (or drug dealer) who tried earlier to take Jackson’s horse and is now out for revenge too. Why Luis becomes so obsessed, to the point of later even defying Gustavo, is never convincing. The conflict between grieving father and American fugitive is effective enough without needing a cookie-cutter villain with tattoos and silver-capped teeth. George Lopez has rugged seriousness as Ramirez, never once reminding us he’s a Latino comic icon, yet his own storyline is vastly underused. The same goes for the character of Jackson’s mother, Andie (Andie MacDowell), who feels thrown in to give the project another marquee name.

Despite these small qualms, “No Man’s Land” rises to a dramatically satisfying ending that defies clichés. Allyn drives home the theme of redemption and coming to a reckoning with our divisions. When Gustavo and Jackson finally come face to face, the moment avoids brainless, drawn out action scenes. It’s more about the intensity of Gustavo’s emotions and Jackson’s yearning to make amends. The Americans are not the heroes and neither are the Mexicans. Through classic thriller elements, Allyn simply looks at the futility of distrusting each other across border walls, because the consequences can turn out to be immensely more tragic than they should be. When we experience pain and guilt our flags and languages don’t seem to matter anymore. Human emotion can be its own universal passport.

No Man’s Land” releases Jan. 22 on VOD and select cities.