The Bottom Line
John Sayles’ working-class obsessions are put to good use in borderland detective tale.
South By Southwest, Narrative Spotlight
Edward James Olmos, LisaGay Hamilton, Yolonda Ross
AUSTIN — A return to form for John Sayles, whose films in recent years have struggled under the weight of piled-up subplots and political messages so heavy-handed the stories seemed like afterthoughts, unites its ethnically diverse cast of characters in a detective story set along the U.S./Mexico border. Arthouse appeal is solid for a film that, though not nearly as commercial as or endearing as , plays to the filmmaker’s strengths and makes good use of costar Edward James Olmos.
The film’s needlessly obscure title refers to two estranged best friends who, back in high school, were so tight they could be mistaken for siblings. Bernice (LisaGay Hamilton) grew up to become a parole officer while Fontayne (Yolonda Ross) fell into drugs, went to jail, and one day finds herself assigned to her old friend’s caseload. After an uneasy visit, Bernice realizes Fontayne may know the sort of people who could help with a problem that’s gnawing on her: Her son Rodney, distant since getting out of the military, has gone missing, and with one of his less reputable friends just murdered, is clearly in trouble.
The two set out on a DIY detective job, soon hearing Rodney has fled to the border; enlisting the help of former police detective Freddy Suarez (Olmos), they head to Tijuana and learn Rodney, involved in smuggling immigrants into the U.S., has gotten on the wrong side of Chinese snakeheads doing the same thing. He’s being held for ransom, and his impatient captors are sending little bits of him — an ear, a finger — back to his partners.
Suarez, forced to leave the force after a scandal and suffering so badly from macular degeneration he addresses people more with his ears than his eyes, inspires little confidence in the two women. Though he’s savvy enough to put pieces of the story together (and to navigate border towns in a way two African-Americans cannot), Bernice and Fontayne also venture off on their own in pursuit of clues, nearly getting killed in the process.
Downtime they spend together gives Sayles plenty of opportunity to mull their history and the different paths they took, and these conversations have an unforced, genuine feel that places character above socioeconomic scene-setting. Ross is especially strong here, shouldering an ex-con’s baggage (in one scene, she has to visit a former lover from prison, now married and a mother, who would just as soon forget their relationship ever happened) without making the struggle the only thing we see.
The screenplay hits a couple of sour notes, as with the brief appearance of a Chinese kingpin whose dialogue is too coy to be credible, but is focused enough to leave them behind quickly, getting back to the search that has reunited these two friends. Whenever the two are on screen together, knows exactly what it’s doing.