Directed by Chris Peckover
Distributed by IFC Films
Undocumented comes at a very interesting time in both our political and cinematic climates. With Republican Presidential candidates arguing over the merits of building a fence at our Border with Mexico and debating whether or not children of illegals in the US are entitled to an education, a film about a documentary team following a group of immigrants attempting to enter the country, illegally of course, couldn’t be more pertinent. And of course since they’re making a documentary, that means Undocumented is just the next in a long line of cinéma vérité style flicks, right? Actually, wrong. There is some first-person footage, but the majority of what we’re watching is third-person so that in and of itself is quite an accomplishment these days!
We’ll get back to how successful the filmmakers’ refreshing hybrid approach is, but first let’s do a bit of plot crunching. Davie (Serano) and a crew that includes director Travis (Mechlowicz), producer Liz (Tal), soundman Jim (Weisman), and cameraman William (Draxl) have a mission: to help Davie’s cousin Alberto (Arias), his wife, and daughter cross the Border and join his family here in the States after Davie’s uncle is seriously injured in an accident at a plant run by ruthless capitalist Whitaker (Brummett). After paying off a rather shady character to hook them up, our fearless quintet, Alberto and his family, and a random few others head off on their journey. After an excruciating trek through an underground tunnel (my claustrophobia senses were tingling during this part for sure) and then being crammed into the back of a dark and almost airless truck cab (more tension and dread for this writer, thank you very much), our travelers find themselves hijacked, not by the Border Patrol officers they feared, but instead by a self-appointed group of cruel and bigoted extreme Right Wingers who have taken it upon themselves to impose their own form of vigilante “justice” on their unsuspecting captives in a makeshift prison they’ve constructed out in the middle of nowhere. As Travis is told menacingly upon their arrival, “Whatever you think this is, it’s much worse.” Scary words, aren’t they? And prophetic.
It doesn’t matter that Davie, Travis, Liz, and the others are Americans – the ringleader, Z, and his followers, all of whom keep their faces hidden throughout the ordeal, aren’t about to show any mercy to anyone. Until they realize that maybe they can use the situation to their advantage and force the crew to film them in action in order to both deter more Mexicans from crossing over and use the footage as a recruitment video for like-minded individuals. As you can imagine, things don’t go too well from there.
The first act of Undocumented kept me riveted. The script co-written by director Peckover and Joe Peterson was taut and engaging, and the entire cast rose to the occasion, especially Mechlowicz and Tal, whom fans of “Supernatural” will be pleased to see has improved immensely since her days of playing the much maligned “Jo”. But then it happened – the second act and our introduction to Z and his army. Things began feeling “off”, and some of the dialogue verged on cheesy as a result of its erratic delivery by the masked men. Undocumented started to lose me. But overall I loved the message and the way Peckover was steering the ship up to that point so I hung in there, and thankfully by the time Act 3 rolled around, the pace picked up, the violence increased dramatically, and our protagonists finally started on the course of action they should have taken from the very beginning. It isn’t often a film can recover from such a misstep, but kudos to Peckover and his actors for doing just that. A big pat on the back also to the actor portraying Z, who, after a somewhat rocky start, did finally manage to reel me in and get me to believe in him. I’m not going to say who it is and spoil the reveal because not knowing the actor goes a long way toward upping the believability. You may recognize the voice (or, like this reviewer, cheat and check the IMDB before the film is over), but keeping him anonymous as long as possible is the best way to go.
Now, as for the whole cinéma vérité/found footage phenomenon we’ve been inundated with over the past couple of years in films, kudos again to everyone involved with Undocumented who decided to go a different way. The traditional narrative approach serves the subject matter well and enables the audience to see things from all the various perspectives as an alternative to the ever so ubiquitous first-person angle. The amount of first-person footage utilized is just right, as is the screenplay’s point of view, which forces the viewer to think about how he or she might react in a similar situation. Would you stand idly by filming while acts of hate and depravity are taking place around you, or would you risk your life to help the victims? Heavy stuff for a horror film nowadays, and I can’t stress enough how welcome it is. Could we be seeing a return to the themes of politics and ethics so prevalent in the Sixties and Seventies? One can only hope!
Undocumented, while far from perfect, is a strong entry in today’s indie horror scene, and IFC is to be commended for taking a chance with it. Seek it out if you’re looking for something different than just another hand-held, shaky-cam snoozefest. It will put you on edge, make you think, and best of all reassure you that horror is far from dead in this decade. It just needed to take a little detour into the backwoods — and backward minds — of America for inspiration.
3 1/2 out of 5