That a new Alex Cox film is opening is welcome news. Highway Patrolman is his first release since 1987's Straight to Hell, which the current film's unusually candid press kit describes as having been "not ... successful as a whole." In 1987 he also filmed Walker, based on the life of an American mercenary who invaded Nicaragua in 1848 and hoped to be crowned its king. Cox shot this film during the darkest days of the U.S.'s most recent Nicaraguan adventure, which tells you everything you need to know about both Cox's politics and his nerve. Walker never went into wide release (it didn't even open in Houston, for example), and, until Highway Patrolman, Cox hadn't been heard from since.
Even for a filmmaker as adventurous as Cox, Highway Patrolman is a surprising vehicle. The film's birth name is El Patrullero, and its subject is the Mexican highway patrol. It was shot in Spanish and financed by Japanese and Mexican money. According to the press kit, the Japanese were interested in this film about the decline and highly ambiguous redemption of a Mexican cop because they saw him as a samurai, "a warrior trying to enforce a moral code whose standards are higher than the society he lives in." This society includes the notoriously corrupt police themselves. When I heard that Cox had made a film about a Mexican lawman, I figured it would be a black comedy: how else could he tell the story of a group held in such contempt by the very society they're sworn -- wink wink -- to defend?
Early on, the film does play as a comedy. The fresh-faced patrullero in question, Pedro (the very fine Roberto Sosa), apparently joined the force out of misguided idealism. For a Mexican this would be a darkly hilarious notion. Once young Pedro graduates from the patrullero academy (sample lesson: "Whenever you pull someone over they are guilty. First you pull them over, then you figure out what law they've broken"), he begins his real education. When he doesn't meet his ticket quota, he's reassigned to the "pig highways," where he is reduced to checking the health permits of pig truckers. By this time he's married and suffering under the low pay for a patrolman. He finally does what is expected of him: he takes a bribe to let pass a truckload of uninspected pork. His entry into the world of corruption sends his moral compass spinning, and Pedro embraces the remainder of his calling's dark side, and a prostitute as well.
Once Cox (and screenwriter Lorenzo O'Brien, a Peruvian who grew up in Mexico) starts Pedro on his moral decline, the film becomes quite ambiguous. Pedro does indulge in the bribery and shakedowns that come with his job, but he does so with self-loathing, and never for simple personal gain. Estranged from his demanding wife, he uses stolen drugs and money to help wean his prostitute girlfriend out of the brothel and off dope. At several points he seems on the verge of killing, but his response to having the power of life and death is always fresh and surprising -- as if Pedro himself were constantly trying to figure out which rules, and which life, he will follow.
Cox doesn't tell us what to think about Pedro. His camera is a deliberately neutral observer, never getting too close to his characters or to the bleak, northern Mexico landscape in which they operate. The film is shot in a series of long takes, which we watch at a cool distance.
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Highway Patrolman takes a clearsighted view of Mexican society, one seldom articulated in Mexican film. It will be interesting to see what portion of the vast Like Water for Chocolate audience returns for El Patrullero.
-- David Theis
Directed by Alex Cox. Starring Roberto Sosa, Bruno Bichir and Vanessa Bauche.