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Crossing Borders, Reinforcing Borders:
Social Categories, Metaphors and Narrative Identities on the U.S.-Mexico Frontier
by Pablo Vila

. "The Gatekeeper"

This film, which seems to have started out as a condemnation of border patrol practices along the California-Mexico line, gets sidetracked and becomes a rather muddled message about how illegals may wind up as slave labor. Or, first time writer-producer-director John Carlos Frey knew exactly where he wanted to take his band of unfortunate immigrants but not how to structure a story or inspire a performance. Either way, it's a movie with an aimless quality.

Of Mexican and American parentage, writer-director-actor Frey creates a central character with an identity crisis. Border Patrol agent Adam Fields (Frey), an earnest guardian against illegal aliens (the gatekeeper of the title) is determined to find a more effective way to deal with the problem. The important association in the life of this dour activist is not his fiance or her family but with macho buddy Jack Green (J. Patrick McCormack), a talk show host who leads an anti-immigration militia. Green's mantra is a dire warning about the new Mexican invasion which, once completed, will force Americans "to eat beans and tortillas for the rest of your life."

Agent Fields, consumed by his self-appointed mission to stop the flood of illegals, or seriously impede it, devises a plan to infiltrate a smuggling ring. He enters Mexico and represents himself to the smugglers as an undocumented Mexican crossing the border to seek work. He's armed with a spy camera to record the events in order to publicize the criminal activity and provide evidentiary basis for changes in the law. But the smugglers have their own spy in the agency and their gunmen wipe out all the right wingers waiting for Fields along with his film of the operation. Only militia leader Green escapes.

Which leaves Fields to fend for himself as he and the band of illegals are taken at gunpoint to the hidden ranch of a crystal meth ring in Central California. Condemned to an agreed one year in servitude to help pay off the smuggling debt, he's then forced to live with the very people he so held in contempt. Relationships develop among the fellow captives and, when he's given medical attention and other support, his wall of rejection and indifference crumbles enough to ultimately recognize the interdependence people have for one another despite ethnic makeup.

As an actor, Frey is stolid and annoyingly unexpressive, despite handsome good looks. In a part calling for high calibre charisma (Jimmy Smits, DeNiro, say), he doesn't develop the appeal of a smirking Ben Affleck. The film, therefore, is destined for low interest even if it had a good script, which it didn't. By the time we build any sympathy for this agent, we're too road weary to arrive at a dramatic destination. The overall problem with the movie is that the script is not energetic enough to raise the performance level of a middling set of actors; and the actors aren't creative enough to compensate for the deficiencies of a belabored script.

Most confusing in its intent is Michelle Agnew's role as fellow abductee Eva Ramirez (Michelle Agnew), the mother of a young boy who idolizes the only role model around, agent Fields. Eva refuses Fields' offer of help when he learns of her abuse at the hands of the gang boss, and discloses his true identity. Bravado and stiff backed rejection may provide sorely needed dialogue sparks and a rise in the emotional level, but it drives the principal thematic line into a dead end. This lady, saddled with a child, knows who her enemies are, but haughty stubbornness blinds her ability to see that her worst enemy may be herself. Similarly for writer Frey whose apparent intent was to avoid a romance to take root in his situation of duress. His creative instinct may have been to prevent an emotional tie here in order to avoid the commercial clich‚ of a love interest but, whatever the reason, he obviously didn't realize how badly his film needed a boost of emotional adrenalin.

Limitations in writing judgement pervade the piece, though the effort each participant makes is admirable and their heartfelt performances are apparent on screen. Rising above that minimum standard is Anne Betancourt who plays Lenora, the overseer and mother figure of the gang's chatels and the actor with the greatest potential. For all the sympathy she creates, however, the film's not about her, so a colorful character portrayal doesn't lift the enterprise. It's easy to see that, given a well written role under strong dramatic guidance, she is a world class actress with rich potential in momma parts. She brings to mind Australian Vicky Haughton who played indomitable grandma Flowers in Whale Rider.

The Bruce Springsteen track, "Sinaloa Cowboys" played over the end credits, is the hottest thing in the movie, unfortunately demonstrating the visceral dynamic missing in a poorly guided attempt at message making.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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John Carlos Frey (left) as undercover Border Patrol Agent Fields
learning how to crystalize meth.

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