“No Man’s Land” is a modern Western, set in Texas and Mexico, and it has the sort of soundtrack that’s familiar to those who know low-budget independent films. It consists of a guitar playing inside an echo chamber.
This staple of independent movies — if you go to the Sundance Film Festival, you will hear echoing guitars in your dreams — is never a welcome sign. Though “No Man’s Land” is a slightly better than average entry in this Echoing Guitar genre, it suffers from most of the usual maladies: It’s slow, with long stretches of nothing, and it’s deadly earnest.
The echoing guitar doesn’t help. It never helps. In “No Man’s Land” (available to stream on demand Friday, Jan. 22), something will happen, and just as we’re registering it, the echoing guitar will come in, as a kind of commentary. The commentary is unspecific as to meaning, but seems to suggest a universal element in what we’ve just witnessed, as if what we’ve seen is not just a moment in people’s lives, but something emblematic. The result, as is always the case with this kind of soundtrack, is an immediate and unwelcome feeling of distance. Suddenly, we’re watching from far away.
So, it comes as a surprise that when “No Man’s Land” reaches its moment of climax, it lands with strength and emotion. It’s not general or universal. It’s specific, and it’s felt.
What we have here, then, is a movie that’s mostly just OK, but then, for five minutes, it’s great. To be fair, those five minutes don’t come from nowhere. They’re a product of everything that has been slowly (too slowly) built over the course of everything that has come before.
“No Man’s Land” is grounded in solid performances and, when it counts, good writing. Frank Grillo plays a Texas rancher living on the border with Mexico, who has to constantly deal with Mexicans crossing over and poaching his livestock. Grillo is interesting casting here, an Italian American from New York City, not the first guy you’d picture in a 10-gallon hat. But he brings a real toughness, the quality of a decent guy so narrowly focused that he could be cruel.
The pivotal event comes early, when he and his two grown sons are patrolling the border, looking for their cattle, which have been scattered. They come upon a group of Mexicans trying to cross the border, and the encounter turns into a confrontation, which turns into a bloody mess. In the melee, the rancher’s son Jackson accidentally kills a pubescent boy, then flees to Mexico to avoid arrest by a Texas Ranger.
That event comes very early on, and the rest of “No Man’s Land” involves all the things that happen to Jackson in Mexico, some of which are interesting, some of which aren’t. But Jake Allyn, who plays Jackson, has an open-hearted, sympathetic quality. He also co-wrote the film and resists the temptation to write himself speeches. Much is conveyed in glances and silences.
Conor Allyn, Jake’s brother, directed, and he gets subtle work from his actors, including Andie MacDowell as the rancher’s wife, and George Lopez as the Texas Ranger. Lopez is particularly moving in the way he shows, without the need of dialogue, the evolution in the lawman’s thinking. It’s in his face, his aura of stoic humanity.
These are all strong virtues, but movies are experienced in time, and how that time rolls out determines how we feel about the experience. Basically, when this movie isn’t good, it’s boring. But — when it’s not boring, it’s good.
L“No Man’s Land”: Western. Starring Jake Allyn, Frank Grillo and George Lopez. Directed by Conor Allyn. (PG-13. 115 minutes.) Available to stream on demand Friday, Jan. 22.