[SXSW 2023 Review] 'Deadland' is an Eerie Genre-Bender that Struggles to Find Its Footing
For his feature debut, Deadland director Lance Larson presents a pensive thriller which observes the lines between life and death, neighboring nations, and human beings, asking whether or not those lines even exist at all?
Written by Larson and Jas Shelton, the film follows Angel (Roberto Urbina), a Hispanic American border patrol agent who finds himself spiraling after he and two others cover up the accidental death of a migrant (Luis Chavez) on the same day that another named Ignacio (Manuel Uriza) shows up at his home, claiming to be his father. With ICE agents searching for Ignacio and the dead stranger haunting the trio, they discover just how thin the lines are between the living and the dead.
“Death is only a horizon.”
Part poetic drama. Part eerie haunter. Deadland is an odd genre-bender that struggles to find its feet.
Opening on a discussion between Angel and fellow agent, Hitchcock (McCaul Lombardi), in which the anger-prone white man describes his view that people having a right to basic needs like shelter or food makes them ungrateful—you know, typical white guy talk--Deadland preps viewers for a bumpy ride riddled with deep pockets of introspection. All throughout, a somber narration and other conversations contemplate the various borders which divide us. Lines which don’t necessarily exist, but which we create between ourselves. There’s a power to Larson’s film which forces viewers to look inside their souls and face difficult questions about why we establish these borders when we’re all just humans who depend on each other to survive? Why do we find ourselves believing we belong on one side or the other? Better yet, what makes people think some should remain on the other side?
Racism. Hate. It all seeps out of the corners of Deadland, but takes an interesting approach by placing Angel at the center of the story. Here is a complex character who seems as if he genuinely wants to help migrants, but also holds a certain disdain for them. His wife, Hannah (Kendal Rae) seems to be the only one who actually displays empathy. It’s the same with the other agents. No matter how harmless or injured the migrants of the film are, they are placed in cuffs. Shouted at. Mistreated. Larson puts on display the hate which migrants face as they constantly deal with agents drawing their guns despite being unarmed. Though the performances are largely one-note, there’s a deep pain filtering out of Deadland which pries open the eyes of the viewer and forces them to witness the anguish of life at the border.
With hate comes death, and that’s where the horror of Deadland comes in. While I wouldn’t call Larson’s debut a horror film, the director displays a strong understanding of the genre by generating effective chills coupled with a heart-pounding score from Christopher Dean White. More than once I found myself holding my breath or the hairs on my neck standing up. Haunting visions. Strange whispers. An underpinning of sinister dread lurks just underneath the surface of Deadland, occasionally clawing its way out for a good scare or two. Larson has left me anxious to see what he’d do with a further divulgence into terror.
While effective with what little horror there is, Deadland suffers from a plot problem. There’s simply too much going on all at once to maintain a well-balanced story. Both the ghostly migrant and the man hiding out at Angel’s home are equally compelling stories, but neither is given enough screen-time to fully develop the hits which they’re meant to land. Each could be its own separate movie. Worst of all is that Angel somehow manages to feel somewhat disconnected from both threads, involved in each but not having much impact on either. As agent Hitchcock’s name might imply, there’s more going on here than meets the eye, but the how and why raise more questions than answers. Deadland will certainly spark conversation, but the convoluted story will likely leave more viewers underwhelmed and confused than not.
Bristling with sweaty tension to match the hot setting, solid scares and thoughtful themes, there’s a lot to like about Deadland. While it falls far short of its potential thanks to an imbalance in plot which leaves important elements undercooked, this is nevertheless an intriguing first feature from Larson that shows promise for the director.
By Matt Konopka
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