‘Transpecos’ offers a gritty, detailed look inside the world of Border Patrol agents

“Transpecos,” winner of the SXSW Film Festival’s Audience Award, deals with what happens to a Border Patrol agent when he gets dragged to the other side by a drug cartel. It’s an impressive directorial debut from independent filmmaker Greg Kwedar.

Kwedar on the set of "Transpecos." (Samuel Goldwyn)

Kwedar on the set of “Transpecos.” (Samuel Goldwyn Films)

Kwedar, whose work includes commercials, documentaries, and short films, took six years to make “Transpecos.” To research the film, he worked with the U.S. Border Patrol, an agency that’s reluctant to share its methods – for good reason.  Their mission isn’t just keeping illegal immigrants out of the United States, they’re also fighting a massive, brutal enemy with unlimited funding and firepower, and no rules.

“Transpecos” is the story of three Border Patrol agents, a rookie named Davis (played by Johnny Simmons), a seasoned professional, Flores (Gabriel Luna), and salty veteran Hobbs (Clifton Collins, Jr.). They man a remote checkpoint somewhere near the U.S.-Mexican border. When one stop goes from routine to nightmarish, all three end up fighting for their lives.

“There’s this famous Western line: ‘silver or lead?,’” says Greg Kwedar, the director who co-wrote the script with Clint Bentley. “Money’s not a vulnerability for everyone. They [Border Patrol] have higher standards to live by. The leverage can be their own personal safety or that of their family. If an agent can rise above that then the cartel might say, “Who do you care about? We’ll use them.”

That’s exactly what happens in the film. Drug cartels use an agent’s family to force him to allow shipments of cocaine across the border. The Border Patrol agents find themselves torn between duty and family, between fulfilling their mission and protecting their own.

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(Samuel Goldwyn Films)

To get access to the real Border Patrol agents Kwedar and his team went out into the desert and got lost (or pretended to be) in the hopes of finding agents who were on the job — a highly unorthodox and potentially dangerous process.

“Once they realized we weren’t antagonistic, that we really wanted to know more about them and their work, they really opened up to us,” Kwedar says. “They invited us into their world and from that we found real friendships, running the gamut from grabbing a beer in a one-stoplight town to sitting down with their families at dinner.”

The characters – Davis, Flores, and Hobbs – are the heart of the film. The Border Patrol depicted in “Transpecos” could just as well be any military checkpoint or remote combat outpost anywhere in the world. It’s hot and desolate. The guys manning the checkpoint can be just as bored as any troops on deployment at any given time. They even have to go out on foot patrols.

“It was 110 degrees Fahrenheit on some of those days,” says Johnny Simmons, who portrays the green Agent Davis. “Our boots were melting, we were covered in sweat at the end of the day when we took off our Kevlar. My brother is a Marine and working on this film brought me a little closer to what it must be like for him … only he and so many others do it every day.”

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(Samuel Goldwyn Films)

The credit for this realism goes to the film’s technical advisor, Sam Sadler. Sadler is a retired Border Patrol agent who joined the service at age 17. Before he retired, he was the second in command at Deming Station, New Mexico, the area where “Transpecos” was filmed. He rode ATVs; he rode horseback. He tracked people through the desert by their footprints, the way Native American tribes used to – a practice still in use by agents today. By the end of his 25 years on the border, Sadler was the go-to guy.

“[Kwedar and Sadler] gave us a great roadmap to the script,” said Clifton Collins, Jr., who plays the experienced, by-the-book Agent Hobbs. “They took us off the leash in regards to the research and I really brought a lot of that to the table.”

At heart, Kwedar made the film for Border Patrol agents and their families. Sadler taught the actors the protocol and search methods to make sure they got the details right.

“These guys are so isolated, and it takes a special person to be able to do that,” Gabriel Luna, who plays Agent Flores, said. “Working on this film really cleared up my view of the Border Patrol. These men and women are just regular people. They’re human, they’re doing this job day in and day out, and it’s such an incredible thing.”

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“Transpecos” is now available nationwide on demand and digital including Comcast, DirecTV and iTunes. It will be released on DVD September 27, 2016.