SXSW Film Review: Deadland

Border drama adds supernatural tension to the politics


Angel Waters (Roberto Urbina) wants a quiet life. That's why he signed up to be a border patrol officer in a rarely-traversed stretch of the US-Mexico border in Nowheresville, Texas.

Yet in SXSW 2023 selection Deadland (the debut feature by director, UT grad and Austinite Lance Larson), trouble inevitably heads North in the forms of two intruders: a mysterious man (Luis Chávez) who has crossed the border in impossible fashion, and and an old man (Manuel Uriza, Better Call Saul) who even more impossibly claims that he is Angel's missing father.

Much like SXSW 2016 border drama Transpecos (coincidentally, directed by another Austin-based filmmaker, Greg Kwedar), Deadland attempts to humanize the new generation of border patrol agents. This particular station house, in the middle of nowhere, is generally dealing with the occasional wandering migrant, or a kid who they just send back home to save on paperwork. This is law enforcement as bored bureaucracy, with no one really paying attention to how the job is done.

Along with fellow officers Salomé Veracruz (Julieth Restrepo) and Ray Hitchcock (McCaul Lombardi, The Inspection), Angel labors under a maudlin and despairing weight that crushes down on this stretch of the border, unchanging as it is. The physical place, that is: enforcement has clearly changed over time, as their weary blind-eye-turning proceduralism is a far remove from the good-old-boy brutality of some old schools cops who turn up from Internal Affairs. They're sniffing around because there are strange happenings relating to one of those two border crossers. This is, after all, a place where secrets can so readily be buried in the desert, and no one even cares to look.

That's the underlying tragedy of Larson's script, cowritten with David Elliot (Four Brothers) and veteran cinematographer Jas Shelton (The Stanford Prison Experiment, Jeff, Who Lives at Home, also pulling double duty behind the lens): that, whether by choice or by accident, terrible things happen, and how we deal with them is the difference between a crime and a tragedy.

There's a supernatural underpinning to the story, one that increasingly clearly connects the two migrants, Angel, and those old school enforcers. Deadland is a weighty film, one in which truths and secrets are often delivered in measured, hushed tones. It's an unrelenting border noir whose understated delivery and brooding sensibilities really benefit by being leavened by those occasional fantastic elements.


Narrative Spotlight, World Premiere

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