In a cathedral in Mexico, Maria (Elpidia Carrillo) is there to worship with her brother and her young baby, but as they are joined by countless others a huge earthquake strikes, demolishing the buildings in the area, including the church. With nowhere to live and no jobs around, Maria must look farther afield, which is why she takes the arduous trek north to the United States along with a host of other desperate individuals, though there is the problem of getting caught by the border patrol to take into account. One of those patrolmen is Charlie Smith (Jack Nicholson) who has moved to the area from California with his wife Marcy (Valerie Perrine); he could be the last remaining hope for Maria and her child...
There aren't many movies made about Canadian illegal immigrants hopping over the border into the U.S.A. from the Frozen North, but if you want true anguish at the sorry state of the world's poor, an effort about the immigrants travelling from the South was the way to go. Or that was the idea, in truth there haven't been that many films on this subject you could describe as blockbusters, indeed, you'd be hard pressed to think of any at all, in spite of the endeavours of director Tony Richardson and his cast and crew when they made the imaginatively-titled The Border. Jack Nicholson for one was most impressed with his work here and regretted that it never really found an audience.
This was a hangover from the nineteen-seventies and that decade's insistence on character drama as fertile ground for excellent cinema; certainly there were plenty of examples to prove that supposition correct, but it did leave works such as this feeling past it by the time they made it to cinemas as a brasher, more Reagan-centric Hollywood was making more profits than the low key, mournful melodrama this represented. That was going to be relegated to a more independent style of moviemaking as the high concept began to rule the box office in the eighties; that too was responsible for many memorable entertainments, yet although The Border had its share of action sequences, it was simply too darn sensitive to make waves in the movie arena of this era.
Charlie was a nicely observed portrayal of a man clinging on to any shred of decency he can when all around him he sees corruption and greed, the latter courtesy of his wife who is intent on bringing her dream home to realisation, believing it will make her husband happy when in fact it's making him miserable because for one thing he's not that materialistic, and for another how the hell is he supposed to afford all this on his salary? He doesn't fit in with Marcy's social circle (Perrine delivers a neat reading of a woman just one missed mortgage payment away from being a total nightmare) and at work things are getting worse too. The cineaste thrill of seeing Nicholson, Harvey Keitel and Warren Oates sharing a scene together was a bonus here, with their characters working at cross purposes.
Yet oddly where there should have been simmering conflict, maybe it was Charlie feeling so sorry for himself that tended to undercut any excitement in what with different handling could have been a decent thriller. Keitel played Cat, his patrolman partner who seems on the level as he shows him the ropes yet as the plot unfolds becomes clear is under the heel of the boss (Oates) who is using the human trafficking operation thanks to a steady stream of illegals making their way across the border to make a handsome profit for himself and his cohorts. Charlie could very easily fall into that den of iniquity, but something inside him says he must remain pure and not give into temptation: actually, his temptation is to keep on the straight and narrow at odds with the pressures on his personality. To that end he vows to save Maria's baby when the infant is stolen from her as part of a child smuggling ring, it could have been something Randolph Scott set out to do in an old Western, but in this instance a more modern method of saving the hero's weary soul. It's just a little dull and worthy. Music by Ry Cooder.