Producers: Rob Allyn, Conor Allyn, Jake Allyn, Victor Almeida and Joel Shapiro Director: Conor Allyn Screenplay: Jake Allyn and David Barraza Cast: Jake Allyn, Frank Grillo, Andie MacDowell, George Lopez, Jorge A. Jimenez, Andrés Delgado, Alex MacNicoll, Ofelia Medina, Alessio Valentini and Esmeralda Pimentel Distributor: IFC Films
There are oodles of good intentions and an almost equal number of coincidences in this modern western about a young Texas rancher’s son who flees into Mexico after shooting a boy trying to cross the border. “No Man’s Land” wants desperately to be a parable of forgiveness, a tale of how mutual understanding can arise from tragedy. Unfortunately, it’s undermined by its own simplistic earnestness and structural clumsiness.
The man on the run is Jackson Greer (Jake Allyn), the younger son of crusty Bill (Frank Grillo), whose spread is on the titular land between the Rio Grande and U.S. border barriers. Bill wants Jackson, a baseball pitching ace, to go to college while his older brother Lucas (Alex MacNicoll) remains on the land with him. Jackson would prefer to remain home with them and his mother Monica (Andie MacDowell), but he’s resigned to follow his dad’s wishes.
The big problem on the ranch is the comings and goings of Mexicans attempting to reach haven in the U.S.; their movements often run off the cattle. So Bill is ready to confront them, or capture them and turn them over to the authorities. (Of course, some sheer hostility is also involved.) One night Bill and Lucas take off with their rifles to deal with a group led by Gustavo (Jorge A. Jimenez), who has a green card to work in America and is trying to get his other family members, who have been denied entry, into Texas. Among them is his young son Fernando (Alessio Valentini).
Jackson, whose essential innocence has been demonstrated when he allows a Mexican to leave the ranch with a stolen chicken, is told to remain with Monica, but instead follows Bill and Lucas into the dark. In the confused altercation that follows, Jackson kills Fernando, and although Bill tries to take the blame, rumpled Texas Ranger Ramirez (George Lopez) sees through the lie. He tries to arrest Jackson, who takes off across the border on his horse Sundance—only one of a number of allusions to classic westerns scattered in the script.
On his journey through Mexico, Jackson comes to understand the bond of common humanity that unites everybody on both sides of the river. With the exception of Luis (Andrés Delgado), a brutal coyote who tries to steal his horse and then pursues him relentlessly, he’s treated with remarkable kindness by the locals, especially the lovely Victoria (Esmeralda Pimentel), whose family gives him a job on their ranch, where he proves his mettle as a horse=breaker. But she’s only the most notable: an elderly couple gives him shelter and food, while a teacher travelling on a bus with her son not only befriends him but tells him the correct pronunciation of his destination, Guanajuato.
Why Guanjuato? Because it’s the hometown of Fernando, and by this time Jackson is obsessed with not only begging Gustavo’s forgiveness but returning his dead son’s wallet to him. His trip is not an uneventful one, as he’s being pursued by Luis (who’s acting in concert with Gustavo, in vengeful mode) and by Ramirez. They all arrive in Guanjuato just in time for Fernando’s funeral, where the issue is whether the confrontation will result in revenge or reconciliation.
“No Man’s Land” is an odd picture, which uses the suffering of a Mexican family to serve as the means of redemption for a Texas one (because what happens proves a learning experience for Monica, Lucas and even Bill as well as Jackson). And there’s only one true villain here, the mercenary, bigoted Luis. The peculiarity is traceable to the fact it was written by Jake Allyn (in collaboration with David Barraza), who also stars as Jackson and makes a handsomely brooding presence, if not a particularly vibrant one, despite the fact that he’s been directed by his brother Conor (the brothers are also listed as producers).
There some compensation in the strong supporting cast—veterans Grillo and MacDowell, Lopez as the Texas lawman who knows no Spanish, and Jimenez as the tortured father. Delgado is unrestrained as the odious coyote, but he manages to bring some genuine menace to the role, and Pimentel is lovely, which is all that’s required. The rest are all capable, and visually the film is surprisingly impressive given what must have been a modest budget, thanks to cinematographer Juan Pablo Ramirez and production designer Liz Medrano Freeman, who use the Mexican locations effectively. The editing by Curtiss Clayton and Christine Park is more than a little slack, and Will Blair’s score leans heavily on aural clichés.
“No Man’s Land” is unquestionably a well-meaning plea for mutual understanding and empathy across a border than has become a socio-political flashpoint. A pity it’s so heavy-handed in conveying the message.