What to Watch Verdict
With his brother Jake as star and screenwriter, Conor Allyn touches on some powerful ideas with this border tale but doesn't quite bring its dramatic, political and moral notions into lockstep.
👤 Director Conor Allyn wears his Western influences on his sleeve to good effect, creating some beautiful, evocative imagery.
👤 Solid performances across the board illuminate the perspectives of each character that gets drawn into this tragic story.
👤 Slightly too much plot undercuts the dramatic tension of this young man's journey as he seeks forgiveness in a foreign land.
In No Man’s Land, a young man with a promising path finds himself under greater pressure than his family’s enormous expectations for his future after he accidentally kills a Mexican immigrant and becomes determined to confess his crime to a higher authority than the police — namely, the boy’s family. Jake Allyn co-writes, co-produces and stars in this languid drama about ambition and accountability projected against the backdrop of unresolved, topical questions about border safety and classical American ideals. Frank Grillo, Andie MacDowell and George Lopez support Allyn for director Conor Allyn — his brother — for a story that appropriately becomes a family affair focusing on the tragic ways that loss can bridge cultural and political divides in a way that conversations and even common sense sometimes cannot.
Jake Allyn plays Jackson Greer, a young man with a gifted pitching arm but less certainty if he wants to use it for the professional baseball career his parents Bill (Grillo) and Monica (MacDowell) anticipate for him, or to follow them into ranching along with his brother Lucas (Alex MacNicoll). Living at the border of Texas and Mexico, their land frequently hosts fugitives from the southern shores of the Rio Grande, and Bill wants Jackson to focus on an upcoming tryout instead of following him and Lucas into the brush to recover livestock that escaped the last time a caravan snuck across their land for the promises of America. His decision to defy his father’s instructions turns out to be the first in a series of poor choices that rapidly escalate out of control, leading to the accidental shooting of both Lucas and a young Mexican boy, the latter of whom dies. But when Texas Ranger Ramirez (Lopez) gathers the Greers and attempts to sort out the sequence of events that led to one killing and another life-threatening injury, Jackson flees to Mexico without quite knowing what to do, much less how to make amends for his accidental act of violence.
Jackson soon comes across an encampment where bleach-blonde criminal Luis (Andres Delgado) and an opportunistic bunch of “coyotes” prey upon illegal immigrants by overcharging them for food and water, or worse, enlisting them to carry contraband into the U.S. But what Jackson does not know is that the boy’s father Gustavo (Jorge A. Jiminez) already knows who he is, and has made a Faustian bargain with the vindictive and unscrupulous Luis for assistance tracking and killing Jackson. Determined to accept accountability for his crime, Jackson ventures further below the border, encountering with fresh eyes many of the same sorts of people he once ran off of his family’s land back in Texas, not realizing that his guilt and Gustavo’s vengeance have put them on a collision course with one another.
Contemporary Westerns always run the risk of mythologizing the Old West — or at least rhapsodizing classic American masculinity — but to its significant credit, No Man’s Land offers at best a bittersweet portrait of the frontiersman lifestyle as a well whose life is perhaps justifiably evaporating. Jackson’s parents want the best for their son, but they also see his success as a platform for them to escape the hard, thankless work of running a ranch that’s become a conveyance for illegal immigrants whose presence jeopardizes their already meager fortunes. Their geographic proximity to Mexico gives them more reason than most for concern about government protection and border walls, and yet the Greers aren’t racist (at least not in the film); rather, they’re simply hoping to protect what’s theirs without extending empathy or understanding to visitors who are seeking a similar kind of freedom and prosperity. But it’s the compassion of the filmmakers, starting with a script by Jake Allyn, that skillfully, if sometimes obviously, holds up a mirror between the life of this American family and the many Mexican communities Jackson encounters during his journey to seek redemption.
Opening with a shot stolen from The Wild Bunch of a bustling hill of angry red ants, Conor captures the disappearing West with a familiar but lyrical beauty, standing on the shoulders of too many giants to keep count while guitars echo mournfully, Brian Eno-style, across the horizon. But he also imbues humanity, and dignity, in a lot of characters that don’t usually receive it, and Jake’s script finds ways to give each character in this jumbled ensemble at least one or two details to set them apart from our expectations. Jackson’s journey feels almost like an act of penance in itself as he pummels his body and risks his talents as a pitcher to make amends he’s not sure will relieve their grief, much less his own guilt. Gustavo, known among immigrants stealing over the border as “the shepherd,” advocates patience and grace, but becomes consumed by vengeance. Ranger Ramirez doesn’t speak Spanish, and finds himself as exasperated with the Mexican authorities as he is with his fugitive.
But then Conor captures a moment where Gustavo, fresh from seeing his son’s corpse, shares an elevator with Monica as she’s worrying about one son who’s on the run and another in the ICU. Neither parent knows who the other is, but the shot connects them through their shared pain, eradicating rhetorical positions — much less niggling questions of choice and culpability — to emphasize what is truly important. Jake’s script has enough of these moments to lend its story an air of real gravitas, even if a series of action interludes and Conor’s directing fails to maintain a consistent emotional tension to make the eventual confrontation between Jackson and Gustavo into the devastating, cathartic finale we’ve waited too long to see. Meanwhile, Jackson’s conversational relationship with his horse Sundance provides a levity that the movie definitely needs but simultaneously undercuts the seriousness of his endeavor.
Thankfully, the film believes in the same kind of accountability that Jackson is hell-bent on self-enforcing, but Jake’s script ultimately elides moral responsibility and legal repercussion into a single conclusive act that doesn’t fully convey the weight of having gone through, well, an accidental killing and a weeks-long odyssey across hundreds of miles of Mexican wilderness. Then again, perhaps it’s not fair to ask that this film fully inventory Jackson’s transgressions and their consequences, much less offer a perception-changing referendum on border crossers and the people who oppose them. But for a movie that acts so decisively about acts of violence that change futures and destroy families, No Man’s Land meanders too frequently when it should gallop, reducing a come-to-Jesus experience to more of a coming of age story and settling cinematically in a place too unspecific to make a deeper impact.
No Man's Land will be available to stream January 22nd, 2021.
Todd Gilchrist is a Los Angeles-based film critic and entertainment journalist with more than 20 years’ experience for dozens of print and online outlets, including Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, Entertainment Weekly and Fangoria. An obsessive soundtrack collector, sneaker aficionado and member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, Todd currently lives in Silverlake, California with his amazing wife Julie, two cats Beatrix and Biscuit, and several thousand books, vinyl records and Blu-rays.