Brothers Conor and Jake Allyn grew up Dallas, Texas and made frequent trips across the southern border into Mexico with their father. The many visits opened their eyes to a much different side of Mexico and ultimately helped inspire their new film “No Man’s Land”. This modern-day western uses a reverse migration story of sorts to explore the human element at the center of the border crisis, bypassing the politics and looking straight at the people. It may not have the most clear-eyed vision, but it’s heart is definitely in the right place.
“No Man’s Land” was shot in Mexico over the course of 28 days with a predominantly Mexican cast and crew. Conor directs the film with Jake starring and co-writing with Mexican co-screenwriter and executive producer David Barraza. The title is a reference to a gap between the Rio Grande River and the border fence further north. That space in between is commonly referred to as No Man’s Land for migrants attempting to slip into the United States.
Bill and Monica Greer (Frank Grillo and Andie MacDowell, both really good and underused) own a ranch near the Texas/Mexico border. They work it with their two boys Lucas (Alex MacNicoll) and Jackson (Jake Allyn). The youngest of the two, Jackson has a promising baseball career ahead with the New York Yankees already showing interest. In addition to managing cattle and horses, the Greer’s are increasingly forced to fend off migrants who are crossing their property and getting into their barns looking for food and water.
Meanwhile on the other side of the Rio Grande￼ a widowed father named Gustavo (Jorge A. Jiménez) works as a coyote for the church, helping people intent on crossing the border by providing a way other than through the cartels. Known as “the Shepherd” by the many people he has helped, Gustavo is ready to leave that dangerous life behind. He sets out on a final crossing, this time bringing his mother and two sons, with plans to stay in America to start a better life for his boys.
The film sets up its pieces nicely and there is an ominous air of tragedy hanging over these early scenes. It inevitably comes in the dark of night as Gustavo and his family are passing through the Greer family’s property. There’s a confrontation and amid the chaos Jackson panics and fatally shoots Gustavo’s youngest boy. The migrants escape into the night while Bill works up a story to protect his son. But Texas Ranger Ramirez (George Lopez) doesn’t buy what they’re selling. Overcome by guilt, Jackson flees across the river into Mexico, avoiding arrest and hoping to find a way to make things right.
It’s here that “No Man’s Land” reshapes into a much different movie as Jackson becomes the migrant in a foreign country relying on the kindness of locals to survive. The underlying meaning behind the role-reversal is pretty obvious and the movie definitely has some meaningful points it wants to make. Thankfully it does so without standing behind a bullhorn or a pulpit. There’s also a “Fugitive” element to the story as Jackson is pursued by the determined Texas Ranger, the Mexican federales and a grief-stricken father thirsty for revenge.
There is one character the movie could have done without. Andrés Delgado plays a young hoodlum named Luis whose tattoos, bleached mohawk and switchblade knife shows he’s bad news. Delgado does the best he can, but his character is trapped in that irredeemable ‘bad guy’ void. And he ends up being a loose string that is unfortunately tied up at the worst possible time. I’m keeping it vague due to spoilers, but the character takes away from the story far more than he adds to it.
Still, there’s much to admire about this well-meaning indie. It’s made by a diverse group (both in front of and behind the camera) who set out to emphasize our similarities with our southern neighbors while still acknowledging our differences. The story plows worthwhile themes of guilt, regret, forgiveness, and accepting the consequences for your actions. And it looks great thanks to cinematographer Juan Pablo Ramírez and production designer Liz Medrana. It has some rough patches and it tries to cover too much ground. But the Allyn brothers tell their story with heart and conviction, and it’s hard not to appreciate their ambition. “No Man’s Land” premieres January 22nd on VOD.
VERDICT – 3 STARS