An early, surprising effect of the COVID-19 pandemic was how the Western genre suddenly returned to the public eye. Simple stories of good and evil battling in open spaces became aspirational fantasy for the millions of people watching films on their laptops at home. For a modern audience that evaluates films based on likability, the stock types of the genre seem easy to watch in a passive mode. But the Western is also ripe for nuance and subversion and intensely political messaging. No Man’s Land, Conor Allyn’s earthy effort at a serious revisionist western, is a film of good intentions that goes awry when it attempts to unpack any of its ideas.
In No Man’s Land — set, initially, along the U.S./Mexico border’s titular nether region — the Greer family are happy if perpetually isolated on their Texas farm. As ants crawl around the dusty road, facts about the U.S./Mexico border appear on screen as title cards. This setting is far away from anything you know, it says, so listen up. Horses ride through gorgeous vistas, with Juan Pablo Ramírez’s classical cinematography capturing the modern landscape. Inside, the patriarch Bill Greeer (Frank Grillo) does household accounts while his wife Monica (Andie McDowell) laughs over the washing up about what a good life they lead. Their son, Jackson (the director’s brother Jake Allyn, who co-writes with David Barraza), tells his dad to use a computer, but Bill is too much of a man for sissy technology.
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The Greers’ economic reality is well-detailed, and fuels many of their choices. Each trip to the general store requires a drive through a border check, and when migrants attempting the crossing steal a few livestock, the cost of each cow is calculated. Jackson’s impending move to New York represents not only the loss of a farmhand but an inevitable ideological shift — even if he’s going to college on a baseball scholarship. His horse, Sundance, seems named for the liberal Hollywood legend Robert Redford, a hint to dreams beyond his lot.
Here, No Man’s Land sentimentalizes the border, and the “dreamers” vision. “Texas looks like Mexico,” a small boy says to his father (Jorge A. Jimenez) as they look across the desert, guitar strings gently plucked on the soundtrack. Fernando Cuautle, one of the highlights of Michel Franco’s classist provocation New Order, brings his nervy underdog energy as Enrique, who has made it this far and won’t be sent back. The Greers make an unplanned attempt at vigilantism to reclaim their property, but it leads to a tragedy.
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Soon, Jackson is on the run. He rides away from the cops, wading through a deep river to make it to safety, just like Josh Brolin’s Llewelyn Moss does in No Country for Old Men. Allyn doesn’t attempt any of that film’s mythic deconstruction of good and evil, as No Man’s Land has no fire in its belly, privileging the white characters’ point of view. Suddenly, Jackson is himself an “illegal” Gringo in Mexico, and he will learn the challenges of permanently looking over your shoulder. Its message of “walk a mile in another man’s shoes” is obvious, and delivered with so few complications as to speak down to its audience. No Man’s Land tries to establish the Eastwoodian dialectic — scenes presented plainly to allow the viewer to choose which side of the constant political/moral divide to stand on. Jackson is soon working on the farm in Mexico, where he reconnects with nature and the tradition of horse keeping, questioning why he was so compelled to move away.
But Jackson isn’t set up as particularly unhappy with his own family life. He doesn’t push back against his father’s wishes, or comment on their way of things. Viewers are told that Jackson is smart, and a great baseball player, but he never displays those traits. The heavily masculine depiction of this world also makes one wonder what the Allyns mean by family, as McDowell’s character is kept inside with nothing to do. Considering Allyn’s last film, Walk. Ride. Rodeo., an empathetic portrait of a young woman’s return to the saddle after an injury, it is surprising to see his depiction of women here reduced to essentialist mother roles, while masculinity, toxic or otherwise, is another element that floats around in the film’s ether, begging for some real focus.
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No Man’s Land introduces a Texas Ranger, Ramirez (George Lopez), who is depicted as kind and just, in contrast to the brutal Mexican officers. It seems unrealistic that Jackson can run from police custody without getting shot. But then, images from the Capitol building suggest that is the protocol for white people. Ramirez attempts to reason with both sides, in a manner reminiscent of John Boyega’s Leroy Logan in Red White and Blue. But No Man’s Land never affords Ramirez a real point of view, relying on him only to play good cop, and good Latino. When he’s grilled on the violent incident, Bill says, “We don’t speak Spanish, Officer Ramirez,” as though that explains the failure to communicate.
Allyn’s aesthetic knack for hard-boiled action and no-frills character development is tied up in a proclivity to set the world to rights through milquetoast political commentary. Be nicer to each other, it says, respect family values, it says. But the cartoonish depictions of Mexican characters and an almost exclusively white viewpoint suggests that No Man’s Land really just wants viewers to stay in their lane. This simple film would benefit from being trimmer, leaner and more direct as it moves between scenes. By slowing down to ponder its surroundings, No Man’s Land watches the world race by.
Ben Flanagan (@manlikeflan) is a film critic and programmer based in London.