Saturday, May 12, 2012

Undocumented: If Truth Is Stranger Is Fiction, Stick To The Truth

There's something about ripped-from-the-headlines horror movies that sort of bugs me. I feel like associating a story with some real-life events is supposed to lend it legitimacy, sort of a "oh shit, this could have happened to you!" sort of vibe, which should make it more frightening, but I think what it ends up doing is detracting from the story. You can either play it gritty and realistic, which might not be over-the-top enough, or you can embellish the story for the sake of dramatic impact. But if you're expecting real and you get fake, it kind of blows the whole thing. Which is pretty much what happens with Undocumented.

It's not based on a true story, but it's highly plausible. The story concerns a group of student filmmakers who are making a documentary on the trafficking and exploitation of illegal Mexican immigrants. They interview laborers who have been injured on the job, a sweatshop owner, and a friend of one of the film crew, who is hoping to bring his wife and daughter over the border. The filmmakers are going to travel with him and his family and allow themselves to be smuggled back into the U.S. along with a bunch of other hopefuls. They're young, idealistic, and on balance, kind of annoying. All is going as well as a spectacularly illegal smuggling operation can, with a truckload of Mexican nationals sneaking through an old drug cartel tunnel under the border, until they run smack dab into a corpse left strung up in the tunnel.

But - awful as it may be - between the realities of human trafficking and the drug trade, that's not necessarily unexpected. Worse has happened. When the group gets pulled over, well, getting busted by the border patrol is an occupational hazard. Only it isn't the border patrol. It's a group of masked militia members - people who have decided to take the immigration problem into their own hands, and are more than aware than illegal immigrants sometimes just disappear.

The militia leader strikes a deal with the film crew - he'll let them go if they agree to document what his group is doing in their remote desert compound. Of course, what it is that they're doing is exactly what you'd expect a bunch of zealots with no accountability to do to a group of people they've completely dehumanized. They spend a lot of time hosing blood off the floor, and shit starts getting pretty weird pretty quickly.

By all rights, this should be a great setup for a movie - a bunch of people, locked up in the middle of nowhere by xenophobic lunatics, and nobody knows they're missing.  But to take advantage of this, it's probably best to keep it low-key, gritty, realistic. There's nothing about the situation that isn't plausible. It's what would happen if some group like the Hutaree Militia started kidnapping illegal immigrants. I mean, terrible shit like this already happens every day. The story pretty much writes itself. But instead, what we get is entirely too close to a bog-standard teens-in-trouble sort of movie. The characters are just on the wrong side of caricature for the most part. Not wildly off, but just enough that things feel artificial. The sound guy's an irresponsible doofus who can't go five minutes without making some horrible decision, the director is pretty much of one of those "keep shooting, this is great footage" types from the word go, and he's got a past with the producer, whose current boyfriend is apparently a huge douche (his douchiness is firmly and evocatively captured in a single exchange - it's one of the most economical character beats I've ever seen in a movie, and may be my favorite thing about this).  But it all feels a little too loud and stereotypical.

This artificiality and staginess is also a problem with the antagonists - there's a single sequence with the film makers blindfolded, being interrogated by members of the militia, that comes off really well, thick with menace, but once we're introduced to the group's leader (who calls himself "Z") that goodwill is squandered as well. He's too over-the-top, ranting and making dramatic gestures, and what makes it even worse is that most of the other militia members are believable, exhibiting the sort of bland menace I've seen in documentaries about real-life white supremacist groups. They aren't self-aware bad guys, they really believe this shit, and everything they do to the immigrants they capture they do because they genuinely believe these people are less human than they are. That's scary, not the torture-porn bullshit Z cooks up.

And the torture-porn bullshit doesn't make sense in context - it's all theatrical, but until they run into this film crew, there's nobody for whom to perform. There's also not really a clear through-line on the events, how things get worse, or how the film crew get worn down. It suffers a little from being episodic. A bunch of stuff happens, they try to escape, they fail, they end up locked up again, start over. There are moments of menace and suspense, but they're sort of isolated as another set piece among set pieces.

This is all too bad, because Undocumented could have been a good, taut hostage drama - all the pieces are there. A leader with a strong personality and a bunch of alienated rednecks with their own little kingdom out in the desert, an Other who can't even speak the language, and the sort of escalation and craziness that this sort of situation breeds. But - much like Wake Wood, in the end - the creators of this film didn't trust what they had, they gussied up the truth with some bullshit that only happens in the movies, and the final product is the weaker for it.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available on Netflix

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