When he was not basketball court monitor and the dream example of retirement, Jack Nicholson was an actor. A good one, to say the least. Solid pair of hands was Nicholson, as The Border shows. A not-as-lauded film from his hefty filmography which paired him with Harvey Keitel and Tom Jones director Tony Richardson. Not the Welsh singer but the Albert Finney-starring piece. It is impossible to direct Welshmen. The Border heads away from the green and pleasant lands of Jones’ homeland and onto the border of Mexico and the United States, a setting which The Border utilises as little as possible. Richardson’s interest is elsewhere, in fluffing up his big-name stars as they career around what could have been.
What it could have been. The Border, that is, not a Keitel and Nicholson trip to a Lakers game. Who knows. The Border is a dark and deeply moved picture through Richardson and his fine eye for detail which tugs at the heartstrings. Intensity moves in the blurred and rippling screen as a horrific disaster hits the peace and communal values of worship. The Border is keen to show, more often than not, the imbalance between peace and war. Not confirmed and clear war, but the raging intimacies within which spring from disaster, from the “broken promised land,” mentioned in the opening credits track. But the false outrage that follows, pioneered by Nicholson in as convincing a fashion as can be helmed, The Border struggles to attach its generous supporting talent to anything meaningful.
Deep within The Border though is a deep response and reaction to the death of the American Dream. It dies with the spirits of an outdated cultural attitude, and in the arms of advantageous border patrol guards, it is a bitter and unique experience to endure. Valerie Perrine is in fine form as she hopes to clutter what little parts of an apartment she shares with three others with remnants of that dying dream. A water bed here, a contemporary piece of furniture there, it all comes as she cries out for one last chance at cementing the life Charlie Smith (Nicholson) has been burned by. Nicholson and Keitel bring this to the next level, regardless of script quality. Their talent, as long as the subplot of Perrine’s fine work moves swiftly, is not too troubling. That is its problem.
The Border is a film with a point to it, an assured expectation of one side or another. But it coasts down the middle and by the time it gets to its expected, emotionally wrought finale, it is filled with a sympathetic desire which plucks the heartstrings without much confidence. Instead of providing characters to drifters, loners, and crucially, to the taxing and gruelling horrors which underscore immigration from Mexico to the United States, record-scratch moments and sombre, soppy moments are commandeered. El Paso may see Nicholson and company spring to life with the expectant highs of their assured acting proficiencies, but the attempts at contrast Richardson tries to bring together do not quite work. They are too simple for what they show, too modest for how they detail the world, and miss out on the chance of becoming a timeless piece of cultural commentary.