The Border is one of those quiet movies of which seemingly very few Jack Nicholson fans have heard. Coming off of Kubrick’s high-profile adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining, the actor went back to his roots in an indie-type production directed by Tony Richardson. While this film is classified as a crime drama, which it most assuredly is, I think it has the hallmarks of a Western.
The Western is pure Americana. In most efforts like John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the idea of good vs evil is extremely prevalent. There is always a moral dilemma involved with whether or not to fight the foes directly or turn a blind eye to the chaos inevitably going on.
Quests are another common element in the genre. Whether it be John Wayne looking for his abducted niece in The Searchers or Wyatt Earp taking down the nefarious Cowboys gang in George P. Cosmatos’ brilliant Tombstone, the heroes always strive for a goal, a pinnacle to reach. The Border is no different.
Much like Clint Eastwood’s character in Unforgiven, Nicholson’s Charlie Smith is a man reluctantly pulled into a moral battle. In the case of William Munny, he is trying to farm his land. He isn’t successful, but he has given up being a gunslinger until he is enlisted to help avenge the disfigurement of prostitute Delilah Fitzgerald. As a result, he becomes entangled in the wicked web of corruption woven by the town sheriff, Little Bill Daggett (played to the hilt by Gene Hackman). Jack Nicholson’s Smith is a modern Munny, just wanting to live his life and not make waves. However, he gets pulled into a world that he is ill-equipped to deal with.
Unfortunately, many of the issues The Border tackles are still a problem 38 years later. As anyone who follows politics knows, one of President Trump’s missions since he took office in 2016 has been to build a wall to keep illegal immigrants out. Contrarily, our country, in its inception, advertised welcoming those from other cultures; one only has to look at the inscription on the Statue of Liberty to see that. We are a melting pot and have been since our country was founded by immigrants from England.
When Tony Richardson made his film in 1981, Mexico was a country steeped in debt. Part of the problem occurred when the demand for oil, which was their chief export, softened. Basically, like the old adage states, putting all their eggs in one basket resulted in an economic collapse because the government was borrowing against future oil revenues. And when that fell through, the snowball grew as it tumbled.
With the peso on the downslide, citizens struggled to rise above the poverty line. This is why so many of them were driven to cross the Rio Grande and enter the United States illegally. We were the shining land of opportunity for them: maybe they could start over and obtain a better life for themselves and their children. However, for some, those dreams would never come to fruition. In order to make ends meet, some were forced into a life of dealing drugs or doing petty crimes to feed their families.
This is the world that Jack Nicholson’s character Charlie Smith inhabited on a daily basis. So, inevitably, he would want to seek greener pastures.
When we meet Charlie, he is doing his job in Los Angeles as an immigration officer, finding illegal aliens working for local merchants and deporting them back to Mexico. Everything is done professionally and on the up and up. While his job pays the bills, it doesn’t offer anything in the way of personal satisfaction. He would much rather be a forest ranger.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t sit well with his bimbette wife, Marcy. Valerie Perrine is excellent in this role as an aging cheerleader/prom queen who hasn’t evolved much beyond her high school triumphs. Instead of encouraging Charlie to find his happiness, she nags him into moving to her hometown of El Paso, where he takes a job as a border patrolman.
They move into a duplex where their next-door neighbors are a couple who appear to be living the American Dream. Cat (Harvey Keitel), a border officer, and his aging, overly made-up wife, Savannah (Shannon Wilcox) have an adorable son, Timmy, and a swimming pool in their backyard. Savannah just so happens to be Marcy’s best friend from high school. So, naturally, it is expected that the two couples will be spending quite a bit of time together.
Charlie wants no part of this relationship and is aloof upon meeting the couple. It is clear he has only done what his wife requested to appease her. Right away, there is going to be trouble in “paradise.” At first, most of it revolves around the lack of money. When Cat takes Charlie to the local store to pick up his uniform, it is clear that everything comes with an exorbitant price tag and Charlie doesn’t have the means to pay for it. He opts not to have his duds tailored and foregoes the offer of store credit from the merchant.
Life isn’t going to get much better for him on the job either. On his very first day, the partner he has been assigned to, a straight arrow, by the book, honest man, Hawker, is gunned down in what appears to be an ambush after receiving a mysterious call to show up at a specific site. Shaken to the core, Charlie goes home after his shift to discover that his wife has bought an expensive waterbed on credit at the local furniture store. All Charlie can see is mounting financial problems. Despite his protestations, Marcy continues to buy more and more goods, including a living room suit and a pool for the backyard.
It is obvious that Charlie can’t afford to pay for those extravagances with his paltry checks. Enter Cat with an offer he might not be able to refuse. Cat is on the take and so are most of his colleagues including the chief, Red (Warren Oates doing his amazing “old boy up to no good” routine). He smuggles illegals across the border, for a price of course. Knowing that Charlie is in a financial predicament, he asks if he wants a piece of the action. Incensed that Cat would even approach him with such an unethical proposition, he explodes in anger at the suggestion.
While all of this pressure is building inside the stoic Charlie who is doing his best to keep his head above water, he becomes enchanted with Maria, a young Mexican girl with a child, and her brother, Juan. Having fled her native land after a devastating earthquake killed her husband at the baptism of her son, she takes up residence in a shack near the Rio Grande. This isn’t a sexual attraction at all. Charlie is drawn to the purity of her spirit and wants to protect her.
After Marcy doesn’t heed his warning to stop her spending, Charlie humbly approaches Cat and tells him he is “open” to the proposition of making extra scratch. So, he begins participating in the illegal smuggling ventures. However, everything goes to hell in a handcart when Maria and her brother are picked up, and the Mexican criminal, Manuel, mastermind of the smuggling, decides he is going to sell Maria’s son. With the help of an associate, he kidnaps her child.
Charlie didn’t sign up for any of this. Along with this turn of events is the murder of two illegals, which causes Charlie to go ballistic, telling Cat this is a line he does not cross. Done with the corruption and everything else that goes along with his job, Charlie starts his quest to bring the department down and to find Maria’s baby.
The entire premise of The Border is very reminiscent of High Noon. Gary Cooper portrays Marshal Will Kane, a lawman trying to protect his town from a gang of marauders. Of course, no one will help him fight the evil that threatens to destroy his jurisdiction, so he has to face them himself. This is exactly what Charlie Smith does. His mission to find Maria’s child culminates in a shoot-out that kills Cat and Red. Much like Kane’s triumphant one-man stand, Charlie is alone and triumphs. Despite everything, he finds redemption in doing so as he says “one good thing” and returns Maria’s son to her.
Yes, The Border‘s finale could have been a little grittier and more visceral like the rest of the film. According to Variety, Richardson’s production was in the can when the studio opted for a more “upbeat ending.” Which is unfortunate because that decision lessened the impact of the story. Instead of highlighting the fact that the problems are ongoing like Chinatown (another Nicholson masterpiece), where the corruption continues and extends into future generations, the Powers That Be decided tying everything up in a nice, neat little bow was the way to go, instead of giving their audience food for thought.
In my mind, Charlie could have saved Maria’s baby, but in the end lost his own life which seems more realistic since it is very rare that one man triumphs over evil in our world. Although, Hollywood would like everyone to believe that. However, despite this flaw, for fans of Jack Nicholson, The Border is a film that should definitely be seen. In these troubled times, maybe even more so.