Published Mar 01, 2006Picking out the message of this Cannes-winning screenplay isn't easy; it wants to punish racism while taking pains to avoid doing so. But there's something to Guillermo Arriaga's characters and situations (as well as his gently fractured chronology) that's more subtle and nuanced than more on-issue movies.
Director Tommy Lee Jones assays the role of Texas ranch foreman Pete Perkins, who goes on a mission of vengeance when the eponymous illegal alien ranch hand turns up dead. Seeking out Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), the border patrolman who accidentally killed him, Perkins engineers the man's kidnapping so that he might teach him a lesson while returning the dead man to Mexico.
You're not entirely sure if Perkins is righteous or crazy, whether his charge is a victim of his captor or of karma, and whether the dead man was even honest about his identity in the first place. But while confusion about the film's ideological orientation reigns, there are some choice observations about small-town ennui and the fluid nature of morality.
That the film has no major Mexican characters is a big drawback to its political thrust, but Arriaga and Jones still manage to doodle interesting things in the margins, such as the empty-headed prison endured by Norton's wife Lou Ann (January Jones), who's dragged to the middle of nowhere by her husband and left with nothing to do but stare vacantly out of their ugly tract house window.
Little details accumulate weight in this movie and the various infidelities and acceptances of bad situations give the film more gravity than that of the usual liberal hand wringer. And though Jones is no great shakes as a director, Arriaga manages to get out from the ostentatious thumb of Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu to show what he can do. (Mongrel Media)