SXSW Review – Deadland
***Trigger/Spoiler Warning: This film contains depictions of suicide***
Deadland (2023) revolves around the struggle of immigrants trying to cross into the US from Mexico at any cost. Screenwriters Lance Larson (also the director) and Jas Shelton take it one step further, with their main character Angel Waters (Roberto Urbina) being a border patrol agent. Angel leads a small border patrol station that does not have much in resources. He works alongside Ray Hitchcock (McCaul Lombardi) and resident medic Salomé Veracruz (Julieth Restrepo).
One day, Angel is called to a location where an illegal immigrant is trying to cross into the US. The man has a blank stare, almost foreboding in nature, and is warned not to cross the dangerous river. The man does anyways and is washed down the river. When Angel finds him again, he appears dead and has a large, bleeding gash on the side of his head. As Angel returns to the station, the man emerges from the body bag and appears in Angel’s rearview mirror. This Stranger (Luis Chávez) continues to act oddly even though he seems unwell from almost drowning. Back at his house, Angel is greeted by another illegal immigrant, Tito (Manuel Uriza), who has somehow befriended his pregnant wife, Hannah (Kendal Rae). Tito is not entirely with it in terms of his mental capacity, but Hannah convinces Angel that he is harmless and needs help.
These two things are happening simultaneously to Angel; both bring about unintended consequences. The Stranger at the station somehow gets into an altercation, and Hitchcock kills him. The three agents decide not to log him into the system and bury his body in the desert—they have made a pact that only works if all three stay committed to it. Tito is, for some reason, being hunted by two internal affairs officers from the border patrol (Julio Cesar Cedillo and Chris Mulkey). It is a serious enough situation that there is doubt that Angel is speaking the truth about not knowing him or his whereabouts, and a search warrant is produced for his house.
There is an unsettling feeling throughout Deadland, and other than the Stranger, it is hard to put your finger on why. The Stranger’s purpose is not pointed out, except for his requests to go to El Paso. He is not the gift that keeps giving but the dead guy that keeps reappearing. He is not a ghost as he very much exists physically, yet he is not a zombie—it is not that kind of film. What he does represent in the long term is possibly the never-ending quest to reach family. In the short term, he is an apparition who torments the consciousness of Hitchcock and Veracruz. Angel deals with the Stranger differently, and he seems to process him methodically, not giving into paranoia.
The stills from Deadland are what drew me to see the film at SXSW. Just by these, I could tell that the cinematography would at least be beautiful enough to hold my attention. It did not disappoint, and co-screenwriter Jas Shelton is also the director of photography for the film. The scenes feel more intimate and focused, even when they are of a vast landscape. I am unsure if I have seen a film where the DOP also wrote the screenplay, but it shows in Jas Shelton’s work because he knew visually what he needed to communicate about the story.
Luis Chávez’s portrayal of The Stranger is unsettling and compelling, especially given that he does not say many words. His performance is vital to this film giving off the feeling that it does, and it would not be as strong without him. He transformed himself into a mysterious illegal immigrant with a purpose no one could extinguish.
There comes a point in the film where fear and mistrust create confusion, and frankly, the characters are not being truthful and straight with each other. These miscommunications lead to some dire consequences. Several plot points are happening during Deadland, and it can be overwhelming when the audience is trying to process one thing, and something else happens that adds to it. Overall, I loved what Deadland does with the story and where it ends. It has the best twists and thrilling scenes of the films I screened at SXSW; it was unexpected, making it even better. I am still trying to conclusively figure out Deadland’s meaning and how events related to each other, but that is not necessarily a negative element of it. I’m still thinking about what happened, and that, in my opinion, is a hallmark of a good film.