Gregory Nava is the Mexican-American filmmaker whose 1983 film El Norte got him an Oscar nomination. El Norte was also one of the first American independent films to get such an honor. Roger Ebert compared that film to The Grapes of Wrath (1940). With Nava's latest film, I'm not going to reach that far back.
There have been quite a few great movies about reporters or journalists dealing with serious scandals or sometimes even deadly subjects. Classics include All the President's Men (1976), Reds (1981), The Killing Fields (1984), The Insider (1999), and most recently, Blood Diamond (2006) and Zodiac (2007).
Each time, you have a dedicated and passionate newsperson who comes across some bad deeds and who makes it his or her cause to expose the truth and seek justice. Nava's new film seems to take elements from many of these movies, and utilize them in a way that is mostly effective.
Nava perhaps, even if it's unconsciously, mimics the styles of those who directed those films. At times, Nava takes the epic weight and political intrigue of Warren Beatty and at other times the camera kinetics of Edward Zwick or Michael Mann.
BORDERTOWN is mostly a thriller, a murder mystery, wrapped in a cause célèbre. The pacing is frenetic, as well as the movement of the lens. It whips you along down a road of righteousness like a freedom ride and dares you not to signal the bus driver to get off. It is a fictional account, but shines a light on a dark subject that combines serial killings with government conspiracies.
Nava opens the film with these facts. As a result of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, corporations from all over the world have built factories in Mexico along the United States' border. Taking advantage of cheap labor and no tariffs, taxes on imported goods, these companies can manufacture products at a low cost to be sold directly in America.
Nava thrusts us into his movie with a scene that lands us in the middle of Juárez, a city in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, a city that stands next to the Río Grande, right on the opposite side of El Paso, Texas. Nava shows us Juárez's streets. The morning of which begins with police confiscating newspapers reporting on the murders of women. You wonder why.
It's only later that you learn that the murdered women are laborers at what are called maquiladoras. Maquiladora is the Spanish word for factories. Juárez is known for its growing industrial sections that are made up now of hundreds, if not a thousand, of these factories, manufacturing plants, referred to as maquiladoras.
In Juárez, every three seconds a television is produced in these maquiladoras. Every seven seconds, a computer is produced, and these maquiladoras are run by big corporations like IBM and Sony. They hire mainly young women because they work for lower wages and complain less about the long hours and harsh working conditions. In other words, they are easily exploited.
Most maquiladoras operate 24 hours a day, and over the past decade, many upon many women have been attacked while traveling to and from these places, either in the late night or early morning. This is ossibly because the attackers know the same thing that the big corporations do, that these women are easily exploited and taken. In fact, at least 400 women have been found, raped, brutalized and murdered, their bodies found scattered and buried all throughout the desolate areas near these maquiladoras.
In an interview for the DVD, Nava calls this a type of genocide, one not unlike the Holocaust or Darfur, and in all honesty, it is very much a feminicide. While hundreds of female bodies have been found, thousands more have been reported missing and never found. No one can ever really know where all the bodies have been buried. Juárez has a significant narcotics trafficking problem, which many blame in part, but that might not be the worst of it.
The opening scene of this movie does feature police confiscating newspapers reporting on these murders. Jennifer Lopez, the Grammy-nominated singer and dancer, plays Lauren Adrian, a newspaper reporter for the fictional Chicago Sentinel who is sent down to this border town to investigate the murders. She is sent because she used to be friends with the man whose newspapers are being confiscated. His name is Alfonso Diaz, and he is portrayed with fiery grace by Antonio Banderas.
Lopez appeared in one of Gregory Nava's early films, My Family, Mi Familia (1995). Her role in that film was more down to earth. Here, she's a little bit too glamorous, almost at times to be taken seriously, but the gravity of the situation she faces starts to sink and as a viewer, you simply get absorbed by that.
You especially get absorbed, as Nava follows a young Mexican girl named Eva, played by new actress, Maya Zapata. Eva works at a maquiladora. She rides the bus to and from there every day. One day, she falls prey to the serial killer, but perhaps through the grace of God, or Eva's strong will, she survives the attack. Nava even gives us a horrifying image of Eva emerging from the grave in the desert that her attackers have placed her.
Eva goes to Alfonso and Lauren at the newspaper for help. The reason she goes to the newspaper and not the police is because Eva knows, as Lauren comes to learn, that the serial killings have gone on for over a decade and hundreds of women have gone missing with no answers, and the police have done nothing about it. Why?
Pressure is put on the maquiladoras to institute some kind of security measures, but they don't. It's because, if they did that, then they would have to start instituting other measures like perhaps fairness in wage, and doing that would ultimately hurt their bottom line, which is the reason they came to Mexico in the first place. So, with the help of government officials and NAFTA, these companies want to cover-up the fact that these murders are even happening.
This involves some drastic and extreme measures. Buying off the politicians and police aren't enough. The film integrates these ideas more dramatically. Eva, who wants to come forward because she can identify her attacker as being one of the men involved with NAFTA and the running of the maquiladoras, is chased by shadow men most likely employed by the same.
There may not be as direct a connection as the movie purports, but the environment that is fostered by the NAFTA agreement and the disregard of the factory owners of the murdered women is tantamount to the same, and it becomes Lauren's job to uncover all of that.
Martin Sheen, who plays the editor at Lauren's newspaper, a man named George Morgan, becomes another person complicit in the conspiracy and the cover-up, and in a Good Night, And Good Luck moment, Lauren confronts George. Lauren wants him to run her story that exposes this conspiracy. George says, "You are blaming both the Mexican and American governments [for these murders]... you're blaming NAFTA free trade..."
Lauren shoots back, "It isn't free trade. It's slave trade! It's a god-damn scam, and everybody is making too much money... [to care] about these women!" George continues to deny her and this story the printing it deserves; citing the sponsors and commercial investors wouldn't like it. Lauren retorts, "Since when did you start putting corporate responsibility above the truth?"
George says, in a very insightful speech, "The days of investigative reporting are over, Lauren. The news isn't news anymore. It's as dead as the typewriter I used to write it on. Corporate America is running the show now and their news agenda is free trade, globalization, and entertainment. That's our glorious future!"
Both actors in this scene are on fire. There's so much raw emotion flowing back and forth that one can't help but be sucked into it. Nava really garners decent performances here, getting especially Lauren's character to face her demons. He complements the film with heavy saturations of blue and orange-yellow colors, as well as aggressive and furious editing that really accentuates those emotions.
Nava has Lopez doing a ton of chase scenes, her running after buses or away from trucks. He really embraces the action-film experience she's accrued from films like Out of Sight (1998) and Angel Eyes (2001). Nava also immerses us in the Mexican culture, by showing us town life and important events like a quinceañeara. It's done in a tangential way but also in a way that again accentuates the emotions.
If you liked this movie, also check out Crónicas (2004), about a Latino reporter from Miami, played by John Leguizamo, who travels to Ecuador to hunt a serial killer. It's just as powerful and disturbing.
Five Stars out of Five.
Rated R for rape scenes and language.
Running Time: 1hr. and 55 mins.