Jackson (Jake Allyn) has his entire life ahead of him. Days away from starting a minor league baseball career with the New York Yankees, he chooses to practice his pitches on the family ranch along the Texas border. But when Jackson and his father (Grillo) encounter a family crossing the border illegally into the United States, a struggle results in one of the young immigrants’ death. Wracked with guilt, Jackson takes his horse across the border into Mexico, determined to find some sense of atonement far away from the family he feels he betrayed.
As Jackson journeys farther south into Mexico, the film settles into a contemplative tone. The countryside he traverses – brought to vivid life onscreen by brother-director Conor Allyn and cinematographer Juan Pablo Ramírez – is interrupted by flashes of the young boy that Jackson killed, while his father (Jimenez) takes his own path to revenge. The result is a road film as melancholic as it is empathetic; Jackson is pulled towards his victim’s hometown even as he discovers a side of Mexico he never learned from his parents. In its better, quieter moments, No Man’s Land seems hellbent on humanizing an entire country in the eyes of the angry cowboys just across the border.
But in a story this delicate, the order of things matters. When Jackson chooses to ask, call, or confess is everything; it moves the narrative forward and helps characters navigate the stages of grief. Careless scripting chips away at this cohesion. Before long, the gap between concept and character is a mile wide, and all that remains is a thought exercise untethered from genuine emotional stakes.
Then there’s the issue of race. One cannot tell an American immigration story untinged by racism. The Allyns seem to recognize this; early in the film, No Man’s Land makes several passing mentions of the Minutemen Project, the violent militia who declared war on illegal immigration. But despite the film’s aim to flip the script on unlawful immigration with Jackson, the issue of race is a significant omission. He is accepted into the homes of the men he works for and treated as an equal by most everyone he meets. Prejudice is a nonfactor in No Man’s Land, and its absence works against the message of equality the filmmakers attempted to craft onscreen.
In the film’s final moments – when Jackson discovers the closure he so desperately needs, if not the closure he might deserve – one cannot help but wonder where this film will find its audience. If Roger Ebert was right and cinema is a machine that generates empathy, then for all its uneven steps, No Man’s Land may worm its way into the hearts of Americans who see Mexico as a supporting character (or worse) in our grand narrative. For the rest of us, it’s a film whose reach exceeds its grasp. How much credit you give it for attempting that reach in the first place is entirely up to you.
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