Deadland (2023) SXSW 2023: The name Deadland would imply that the film is a horror offering, and a glance at the movie’s official trailer would indicate that it is something simply set in the deadland, i.e., the desert in Texas. Upon watching part of the film where you pick up on a few cues, you may assume that this is a psychological thriller. Neither side would be wrong, as Deadland is a blend of all three genres that prove to be quite confusing. Audiences exiting the SXSW festival screening could be forgiven for being a tad confused about what they just saw, as too much is left to their imagination with too many open-ended possibilities. While a film with a lot of possibilities is good, it may leave audiences searching for a definite conclusion a tad unsatisfied.
Even if that is the case, the treatment of migrants is explored in Lance Larson’s first feature film as a director. That can be a big takeaway from this film with the mistreatment of and scorned fury of immigrants that can come forth in extremely dangerous ways.
Lance Larson’s Deadland focuses on the lives of border patrol agents at a lonely outpost near the Rio Grande. A three-person team comprising Angel Waters, Ray Hitchcock, and Salome Veracruz patrols the rugged region in vehicles and mans the premises. Sightings of illegal crossings are the norm, and as such, agents Waters and Hitchcock take their vehicles to the river, where they warn a man not to wade through the river.
The individual pays no heed and allows the agents to demonstrate their point of view of being the saviors having a thankless job. They take this person to their base, where an incident sees his brains get plastered all over the walls of a room. When the trio of agents tries to bury the evidence literally, they learn that death is not the end. Or is it their conscience or their past? When things begin to heat up, the characters’ motivations come forth, which adds a layer of interpersonal drama to the cover-up. How far will someone go to ensure certain things aren’t resurrected?
The unfortunate state of an immigrant is touched upon in Deadland. Without proof or papers, these undocumented individuals can claim nothing and are at the mercy of the agents and the loopholes in procedures. They take risks to cross over, potentially to escape a Deadland; hence being saved is something they don’t want as it will be either dead or Deadland. Maybe that’s why they aren’t grateful?
I found a few flaws in this film. It left too much for the audience to decipher the subject, not even revealing his motivation or backstory. All he says is, “My heart is in El Paso.” “I am needed in El Paso.” The “El Paso por favor” is quite chilling, which brings me to yet another problem point. The sound effects are so forced that the jump scares are so predictable. In fact, the audience may brace themselves after being classically conditioned after the first jump scare. When you see a scene play out, you will be waiting for that loud sound with a spooky visual. This is quite unfortunate for a film seeking to frighten audiences with jump scares.
Deadland has some powerful lines such as, “I am the roots you are the branches. Only fools believe men cannot be constrained by what does not exist.” These occur in sequences in a white desert that had so much potential if they were explored. Unfortunately, Jas Shelton’s work remains restricted to these scenes, the visuals when the roots and branches quote takes center stage, and the shots of the border agents’ vehicles purring along the snaking roads adjacent to the wild shrubs.
On the acting front, the only memorable display came from Luiz Chavez. His blank look as the stranger successfully allowed him to portray the ghost-like character. His single-minded focus on reaching El Paso with that single line was chilling. The tone allowed audiences to legit buy into the fact that he may be supernatural given his actions in the film. Either that or Deadland focuses on a time loop.
McCaul Lombardi’s turn as Hitchcock, who is desperate and willing to go to any length, is what gives the film an edge. This deranged and tense mindset allows audiences to explore a thread that the stranger is a figment of his imagination.
Overall, Deadland is a mixed-genre offering with solid performances and a story with great potential. It will leave room for speculation, but the director could have driven the nail home with a definite ending. Why/how did the character appear that way? I may have missed the point, but that is because clarity wasn’t there.