They wait maybe a dozen together, in ball caps and blue jeans, on a corner near a freeway in some vast, anonymous, mind-numbingly landscaped patch of American sprawl. Employers pull up in hatchbacks and trucks quickly filled with the huddled day-labourers leaping at the chance to dig ditches or collect trash. Negotiations occur in exchanges of broken English and Spanish so minimal as to be comical, never more so than when one boss improbably addresses his impromptu crew of underpaid workhorses as “amigos.” Mexican director Amat Escalante’s The Bastards drops us into the circuit of illegal migrant work, ensuring it’s deeply tedious and, most importantly, that no matter how much these rich gringos and desperate Mexicans interact there can finally be no genuine communication. Exploitation cannot engender friendships. Not on Escalante’s clock.
The Bastards was written by Escalante and his brother Martín, who previously collaborated on their debut feature Sangre (2005). Escalante was assistant director on Carlos Reygadas’ Battle in Heaven (05), and an aesthetic kinship is clearly evident here in the lengthy shot duration, often-static camerawork, deadpan humour and dearth of events in any one scene. This is definitely not a bouncy movie, but Escalante utilizes what might feel like Latino art-house tropes with craftsmanship and purpose. When so little happens in any one sequence everything counts: gestures, fragments of dialogue or a handful of actions bloom portentously, and sometimes quite funnily. We’re given just the right amount of digestion time to consider what things might mean before the narrative moves along. And where this narrative moves may surprise you. And then after it surprises you, it suddenly doesn’t surprise you at all.
The polemical core of The Bastards is in one sense simplistic. Policies that perpetuate exploitation, crime, economic disparity, suffering and death are bad. Guns, too, are bad, perhaps especially when in the hands of the young. The final scenes ram these perfectly sympathetic sentiments home with a grand wallop. But the bluntness of the film’s thesis is tempered by the sophistication and wit brought to the shaping of the story and skeletal character development. (And here’s where you stop reading if you want to avoid potential spoilers.)
The Bastards takes the animosity toward these so-called wetbacks invading US soil and toil and compresses it down into a single case of home invasion. Jesús (Jesús Moises Rodriguez) and Fausto (Rubén Sosa), who we first see on the corner with the other guys, with nightfall break into the cozy bungalow of Karen (Nina Zavarin), the single, apparently depressed mother of an uncommunicative teen. Karen’s got a penchant for crack—itself a metaphor for unconscious bourgeois desires to “slum” it—and, alone for the night, is already slumped on the couch and lost in a foggy dream when the boys break in with a sawed-off. Rather than load up on saleables and scoot, Jesús and Fausto ask for dinner and are served by Karen in a scene that almost perfectly mirrors an earlier scene involving Karen and her son. Karen asks if they were hired by John, her presumably monstrous ex, and Jesús blankly replies, “Si. John.” It’s unclear whether or not this is in fact true, as Jesús’ response reads to me as automatic and disinterested and quite possibly a very Mexican bit of mischief. But either way it struck me as revealing, Karen’s assumption that any difficult task performed by a swarthy Mexican must surely have been financed and organized by a rich white gringo.
Jesús and Fausto continue to linger around Karen’s house, and the promise of connection between them and Karen emerges again and again in a series of increasingly intriguing situations. There is even the suggestion that while this woman is obviously terrified, she may also feel that she’s been hurled into the darkest of transgressive fantasies in which the soul-draining effects of her lifestyle are obliterated through the erotic charge of violent class confrontation. The film’s neatly wrapped resolution is unable to process all these provocative thematic threads, but still, as far as heavily politicized home invasion dramas go, this is more imaginative and slippery than Funny Games (97/07).