A Border Patrol drug bust goes awry in powerfully taut 'Transpecos'

A seemingly routine inspection by U.S. Border Patrol officers in West Texas proves to have violent repercussions in “Transpecos,” an effectively moody, well-acted and impressively understated thriller by Greg Kwedar in his feature directing debut.

It looks like just another day in the sun-drenched, wind-swept wide open spaces that envelop three border agents — by-the-book Flores (Gabriel Luna), wide-eyed rookie Davis (Johnny Simmons) and brash, racist, seen-it-all Hobbs (the always reliable Clifton Collins Jr.) — at their pop-up checkpoint, located in a particularly remote portion of the Chihuahuan desert.

But it isn’t long before one of those inspections goes seriously wrong, with the discovery of a major cache of cocaine destined for a drug cartel igniting a slow-burning fuse fueled by duplicity and moral dilemma. 

Clearly having done their homework, Kwedar, who previously directed a handful of short films, and co-screenwriter Clint Bentley, establish an atmospheric realism borne out of evident research of the milieu, strikingly captured by cinematographer Jeffrey Waldron.

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Unlike the highly charged “Sicario” and other recent drug trade-themed movies, the film, shot in New Mexico, eschews explosive confrontations and political judgments in favor of complex, thoughtfully portrayed characters and tense, compelling situations.

The drama’s true potency lies in the filmmaker’s masterfully taut control over the palpably gritty environment. In the parched terrain inhabited by “Transpecos,” which took home an audience award from this year’s SXSW film festival, the element of subtlety has an unmistakable scent of its own.

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‘Transpecos’

In English and Spanish with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes

Playing: Ahrya Fine Arts, Beverly Hills

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