Picking up the Best First Film award at the Berlinale, Gabriel Ripstein‘s “600 Miles” may be the work of a neophyte director, but Ripstein is no stranger to the filmmaking world. He himself has a background as a producer, and is the son of one of Mexico’s most enduringly acclaimed directors, Arturo Ripstein (“Deep Crimson“). And he’s the grandson of prolific producer Alfredo Ripstein, widely referred to as a founding father of the Mexican film industry. With that pedigree, it feels inevitable not only that Gabriel would follow in the family trade, but that his first directorial film (which he also co-wrote), would be something like “600 Miles” — a lean, careful, clever tale of divided loyalties and divided territories in the borderlands of Mexico and the U.S.
Small in scale and pragmatically narrow in scope, “600 Miles” starts out with an effective bait-and-switch, establishing tension in a deeply uncomfortable scene during which a young guy saunters around a gun store, asking weirdly knowledgeable and specific questions about firearms. This is Carson (Harrison Thomas, who also shows up in Sundance hit “The Stanford Prison Experiment“), a white trash delinquent with a violent streak, but this is not his story. The real subject of the film waits in the car outside for Carson to return — Arnulfo Rubio (Kristyan Ferrer, so chilling as the kid, El Smiley, in Cary Fukunaga‘s “Sin Nombre“) is a low-level grunt gun runner for a Mexican cartel run by his uncle Martin (Noé Hernández). Seemingly smarter and more stable than his friend, Rubio is nonetheless anxious to climb the cartel ladder. He is entirely in awe of his ruthless, powerful uncle, possibly because of the lack of a real father figure in his life.
Hitting up stores and gun shows, Carson and Rubio amass a small stockpile which Rubio then drives across the border in a hollowed-out car. All goes smoothly until some of his purchases bring him to the attention of dogged, methodical ATF agent, Hank Harris (Tim Roth). Confronting Rubio in a parking lot, Harris is about to make an arrest when Carson jumps him and kicks him half to death. Scared out of his wits and unsure of what to do next, Rubio bundles the unconscious agent into one of the car’s hiding places and drives him into Mexico, determined to consult his bosses about his fate.
From here, the film becomes largely a two-hander road movie between Rubio and Harris, as the agent, trussed up and beyond the reach of the U.S. authorities, tries to reason and bargain for his life. Gradually, a grudging modicum of trust builds between them, even as they speed toward inevitable confrontation and bloodshed. In fact, an uneasy chemistry evolves between them, which in a lesser film would transmute to a simple buddy vibe. Here, it’s more complex, a credit to the strong playing from both actors — Roth gives Harris a constant edge of ambivalence, so we’re never entirely sure how truthful he is being. The callow Rubio is impressed, perhaps more than he realizes himself, by Harris’ air of world-weariness and Ferrer perfectly sells the character’s sad, hamster-on-a-wheel predicament, while also investing him with a sympathetic streak of decency despite it all.
It does not feel blisteringly new, this minor-key story of an odd couple shackled together on a fateful journey by circumstances, for which neither and both are to blame. But Ripstein’s sincerity behind the camera (and the unfussy camerawork of Alain Marcoen) and his faith in his actors to find new textures in so much old rope, bears fruit in making “600 Miles” a study in liminality, of places, life-stages and mentalities that are trapped between two states, and afforded the protection and security of neither.
Rubio is old enough to drive guns across a border, but immature enough to expect an authority figure to somehow get him out of it when things go literally South. Harris is a seemingly lonely man, whose life is a job with a support network beneath it that lies hundreds of miles in the rearview mirror, and all he has to show for it is a badge that gives him no jurisdiction, and now will probably get him killed. All of what happens between the two occurs in that stretch of psychological no-man’s-land between right and wrong, legal and illegal, justifiable and unforgivable. It’s when Ripstein shades this unmapped territory that the film is at its best: Uncle Martin, the crime lord, neatly washing up his plate after eating, Rubio pleading a case, his tears tell us he already knows is lost, and even the offhandedly violent, ungovernable Carson, affectionately roughhousing with Rubio — it is always the contradictions of human behavior that are most revealing.
Boasting a bitter little kick to its ending, “600 Miles” otherwise does not reinvent the wheel, but keeps it firmly steady, hands at ten and two. The filmmaking is sleek and promising, and the intentions modest but sincere: to tell a small, exact story of innocence and experience, America and Mexico, life and death, and the long, dark car journey of the soul that makes traveling companions of two very different people, en route from one to the other. [B-]