Jesse Harris’s Borrego opens and closes with sober white text on a black screen informing us of how bad prescription drug abuse is in the United States and its role in the illegal drug trade, a bit of unnecessary didacticism that is much better dramatized within the film itself, which is an engaging suspense thriller. The presence of Mexican drug runners, a character forced to participate in the criminal enterprise out of economic desperation, and the depiction of the border as a desolate landscape with minimal policing all suggest a robust political subtext, but the thrust of the film is in the protagonist’s survival.
That character is a botanist named Elly (Lucy Hale, Pretty Little Liars, Ragdoll) who is studying a new plant species in the desert along the Texas-Mexico border. Unbeknownst to her, she is about to become the perennial wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time character, as late one night she witnesses the fiery crash of a single-engine glider piloted by Tomas (Leynar Gomez), who is bringing a huge bag of illicit prescription drugs over the border. He survives the crash, and when Elly runs to help him, his first instinct is to kill her so she can’t report him. However, he has no idea where he has crashed and Elly knows the way out of the desert, so they forge an uneasy bond in which he lets her stay alive as long as she guides him to safety. He has water and a loaded gun; she knows the way.
Meanwhile, Elly’s disappearance is noticed by Alex (Olivia Trujillo), the rebellious teenage daughter of Jose (Nicholas Gonzalez), the lone police officer of a small border town. Alex had befriended Elly the day before while riding her motorcycle through the desert instead of going to school (a bit of shoehorned narrative convenience), and she enlists her dad to search for her, which means they end up crossing paths with Guillermo (Jorge A. Jimenez), the brutal drug runner for whom Tomas is working. We know Guillermo is violent and ruthless and willing to do anything to keep his drug trade running, which explains why Tomas is so desperate to get what remains of the drugs to him. We sense that Tomas’s own life is in the balance, and Gomez plays him as a desperate man, rather than a ruthless one. As the film makes clear, there is a distinction between men like Guillermo and men like Tomas, even though they work in the same criminal enterprise, although even that demarcation is muddied near the end of the film when Guillermo explains how he came to be what he is—which may or may not be a lie.
Borrego is well shot and edited, which helps make the scorching desert its own brutal character (it was actually shot in the Spanish desert in Almeria, the same dunes and craggy hills through which Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name walked decades early in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns). Written and directed by Jesse Harris, Borrego (which is Spanish for “lamb”) is taut enough to keep us engaged and savvy enough to work its social and political themes in meaningful ways without being overbearing. Harris clearly desires to humanize an issue that is all too often discussed in shallow talking points and shrill hyperbole, and in that regard his is successful.
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Overall Rating: (3)
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