The Border arrived near the end of the run of films that cemented Jack Nicholson’s legendary status, from Easy Rider to his Oscar-winning role in Terms of Endearment (with some blips along the way). It’s a rare American film from Tony Richardson, who was best known for his kitchen-sink dramas, like The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner. It’s somewhat timely, but it didn’t really find an audience when it came out.
Nicholson plays a very quiet immigration enforcement agent called Charlie Smith, who works along the California-Mexico border. All the border agents around him are deeply corrupt, as so many really are. Cat (Harvey Keitel) and Red (Warren Oates) play a co-worker and his supervisor, with Oates in one of his last performances before he died much too young. There’s a human-smuggling operation going on and some border agents are involved. When Nicholson stumbles on a Mexican mother who has been detained and whose baby has then been stolen for illegal adoption, he starts to take a stand against the corruption in the border control force.
It’s an interesting plot, and obviously with the Trump border wall there is some resonance in the theme today. It’s probably a bit too kind to the Nicholson character, who most likely would have tended to go along with his co-workers, but then that wouldn’t make great drama. It’s not the best paced film, and takes awhile to really get going.
Nicholson is really good in it—it’s one of the last times he would play a low-key character, although it’s actually what he’s best at. Everyone thinks of him in his big, over-the-top characters, like his role in The Shining, but he’s actually much better playing a more subtle type than when he’s doing the whole “Nicholson schtick”—for example, see his fine performances in The King of Marvin Gardens or The Passenger. After this point in his career, he was almost always in the same kind of loud, stereotypical roles, and he certainly knows how to chew scenery.
However, Keitel is not that great in The Border—he did much better work elsewhere in the early 80s. Warren Oates was one of the greats, and wonderful in pretty much anything, including here. It’s well-shot by Ric Waite, who worked a lot with Walter Hill around the same time. Some critics felt it looked a bit too much like a TV movie, a medium Waite had worked a lot in, but I think it looks alright.
Unfortunately, the film was a big flop. It came out in January of ’82, right after the Oscar season, and the studio didn’t give it a push. But it’s a good movie, and Nicholson does well in his role as someone who is slightly corrupt but finds out he has his limits. The ending is a bit anticlimactic, but with a good cast and decent director, the full effect is a film worth watching.
The disc includes a few good extras, including a commentary by film critic Nick Pinkerton, an audio tribute to Tony Richardson recorded after he died from complications of aids that includes people like Lindsay Anderson and Kevin Brownlow, a trailer, image gallery, and a booklet with new and old writing on film.