The Film: The Border (1982)
The Principles: Tony Richardson (Director). Deric Washburn, Walon Green (Screenwriters). Jack Nicholson, Warren Oates, Harvey Keitel, Valerie Perrine, Elpidia Carrillo, Dirk Blocker, Shannon Wilcox, Manuel Viescas, Jeff Morris, Mike Gomez, etc.
The Premise: A border patrol agent is transferred to a Texas station rife with corruption. While he falls in line at first in order to support his wife’s spending habits, his conscience begins to get the better of him, which leads to a breaking point.
Is It Good?: Yes. Jack Nicholson in the kind of role that would very likely be played by William H. Macy if the film were made now? What’s not to like?!? Jack gives a very subdued performance here and is one of the VERY few films in which he does so. He’s the goody-goody. His Charlie Smith a financially down-on-his luck California immigration officer who just can’t seem to catch a break. We open on him very politely shaking down immigrant workers at a factory. The factory management likes him. Even the immigrants don’t seem to mind the fact that he’s harassing them. Why? Because he’s not an asshole about it. He makes sure the ones he picks to take back to the office are single men without children or families to take care of and makes their boss promise to give them their jobs back as soon as they return from their inevitable deportation. Yep, Charlie knows that they will be back. Their boss knows that they’ll be back. They know that they will be back. The whole situation is merely a formality.
We next see Charlie returning home to a crummy trailer and his housewife. He seems irritated that she spent the day lounging about instead of cleaning or doing the laundry, but doesn’t say anything. He strikes up a conversation with her about how he has been thinking about returning to the parks & recreation service; a job that he seemingly enjoyed more. Charlie is shot down. Instead, Marcy (Valerie Perrine) wants them to pick up a move to El Paso. She herself is a Texan and wants to move into a duplex that opened up beside an old high school friend of hers. She urges Charlie to take a job with the Texas border patrol. He goes along with it because he loves her and despite her lofty ambitions of their “dream life” and her spending habits, it’s easy to see why. Marcy isn’t in this marriage for a free ride, nor is she some materialistic bitch. Lesser films would have taken either road, but not The Border. Marcy loves Charlie just as much as he loves her and because of this, he longs to give her the life she craves. This film belongs to Perrine almost as much as it does to Nicholson.
We next see the pair arriving at their newly-purchased home. Marcy is ecstatic with their new digs. Charlie is visibly worried about the cost of the home and even moreso at the thought of how March might furnish it. Her friend is married to a border patrol officer named Cat (Harvey Keitel). Cat’s a bold man who isn’t afraid to speak his mind. He also, along with their boss (Warren Oates), has a business on the side running protection for a local coyote’s lucrative . Cat is the role that Jack would normally have taken, especially later on in his career. The big manly, forceful corrupt lawman? That fits Nicholson to a T. At this point in his career, however, Jack was still interested in shaking things up. This small film fell in-between two of his heavy hitters (Reds and Terms of Endearment). The script is what drew his attention here. The chance to do something a little different. While I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a lost classic (though that may change after future viewings), The Border is a damn good little film and Nicholson gives one of the best performances of his career.
Is It Worth A Look?: Absolutely. This is Nicholson in an atypical role. For all intents and purpose, he’s a loser and a pushover. Charlie is emotionally waylaid by his wife’s expensive tastes throughout the film. He allows himself to be forced into moving somewhere he has no desire to live or really afford. He allows the situation to worsen as Marcy piles expensive furniture and amenities on top of their debt. He then allows himself to go on the take to get both Marcy and Cat off his back. The former out of love and the latter out of a desire to be respected. As the film goes on and his morals weigh heavier and heavier on his conscience, he begins to stand up for himself. If it had come out today it would have starred someone like William H. Macy or Patrick Wilson (our current go-to emasculated male). Someone whose slow build up to violently defending his beliefs would both impress and be cliched at the same time. By casting Jack, they subverted expectations. We KNOW that he can pull out his gun and fix the situation at any turn. Because he doesn’t, it causes frustration. You WANT Charlie to stand up for himself from the opening scene and when he finally does late in the film, it gives a cathartic release. By that point you are ready to cheer him on and the film has won. The Border might not be an outright classic, but it is absolutely an underrated gem and a criminally underseen entry in Jack Nicholson’s oeuvre. Give it a look when you have the time, especially since it is currently available on Netflix Instant. Jack once said that this is one of the films he is most proud of making and he is right to feel that way. If that isn’t reason enough to give it a shot, I don’t know what would be.
Random Anecdotes: The lead role was originally intended for Robert Blake, but the studio ultimately decided to go with a bigger star.
Co-writer Deric Washburn also wrote Silent Running, The Deer Hunter, and Extreme Prejudice.
Bruce Springsteen’s song “The Line” was apparently inspired by this film.
The original ending had Charlie Smith bombing the border patrol HQ and going to jail. It was reshot after test audiences said it was too dark a finish. Here’s hoping we get to see it someday, preferably on Blu, be it in a restored cut or as an alternate ending. From the sound of things, it would have been the icing on top of an already delicious cake of a film. You can catch a smidgen of it in the trailer below.
Cinematic Soulmates: Cop Land, Pride & Glory, The Shepherd: Border Patrol, Training Day, The Two Jakes.