Original title: 600 Millas
D: Gabriel Ripstein / 84m
Cast: Tim Roth, Kristyan Ferrer, Noé Hernández, Harrison Thomas, Armando Hernández, Mónica Del Carmen, Orlando Moguel, Gilberto Barraza, Harris Kendall, Ángel Sosa
Trading on long static shots and a stately pace in which to anchor its two leading characters, first-time writer/director Gabriel Ripstein has made a movie that takes an interesting (if not original) idea and transforms it into a movie that moves bluntly from scene to scene, and rarely seeks to engage with its audience. It’s a crime drama where the crime is incidental, a road trip movie where the journey is nothing more than a journey, and a buddy movie which lacks any real sense that its two main protagonists have really bonded (this is particularly thrown into sharp relief thanks to the movie’s final two scenes, the second of which has a real sting in the tale).
It also takes a long while to bring its two central characters together. Arnulfo (Ferrer), along with his bully of a friend, Carson (Thomas), smuggles guns into Mexico for a cartel. He’s a young man who lacks self-confidence, and he wants to impress his bosses, but he’s awkward and unsure of himself when he’s around them. Several runs go without incident, and Arnulfo begins to feel more confident. He meets a girl he likes and begins a (very) tentative romance.
What Arnulfo is unaware of is that his activities are being monitored by ATF agent Hank Harris (Roth). Every time he and Carson buy guns to take into Mexico, Harris is right there to collect the details of their purchases. When he finally has enough evidence to arrest them, Harris approaches Arnulfo’s truck while he waits outside a gunsmith’s for Carson to come out. Carson manages to overpower Harris before leaving Arnulfo with the problem of what to do with him. Panicked by the whole thing, Arnulfo puts Harris in the back of the truck, and not knowing what else to do, decides to drive the six hundred miles to the cartel’s base. He believes that the cartel will be able to use Harris for information.
But six hundred miles is a long way, and though Harris is stuck in a hidden section of the truck until they cross the Mexican border, once in Mexico, Arnulfo lets him ride up front, albeit tied up. And so begins a long, drawn-out section of the movie where Harris and Arnulfo get to know each other a bit better – but not in such a way that they can call themselves newfound friends. In fact, if anything, their relationship (such as it is) has the feel of a fait accompli, a way for Ripstein to pass the time until he can get to the inevitable showdown at cartel HQ. (There’s also an attempt at emotional confliction due to the fact that one of the cartel bosses is Arnulfo’s uncle.)
Alas, for all of Ripstein’s efforts, 600 Miles is as arid as the Mexican desert vistas we see in the movie. By taking an almost documentary approach to the material, and by stripping back the narrative to almost bare minimum levels, Ripstein has ensured that the movie looks good but is scarce on incident, and his characters seem to be devoid of an inner life. As a result, it’s difficult to care what happens to Harris and Arnulfo, and it’s even harder to imagine their journey together as being anything other than a chore for both to get through. Even though Arnulfo is trying to do “the right thing” as he sees it, his naïve decision has potential consequences that even he should be able to foresee. That he doesn’t is too ingenuous for the movie’s own good, and there are further instances where Ripstein’s dramatic needs – such as they are – mean that Arnulfo undergoes too many emotional transformations for them to work effectively.
As the troubled young man, Ferrer adopts a shy, deferential demeanour that fits well with the character’s insecurity and lack of worldly experience. By contrast, Roth is all silent stares and dishevelled authority. He’s a weary man in a weary job, as inured by ennui as Arnulfo is by immaturity. He’s not even very good at his job, pointing a gun at Arnulfo and not announcing his ATF status, and allowing himself to be kidnapped in broad daylight. Roth is good at playing understated characters, but he has so little to work with, not even a basic character arc, that even he can’t give the kind of magnetic, internalised performance the movie needs from the role.
What the viewer is left with is a movie that promises much in the way of well-judged characterisations, clever insights into the male psyche, and occasional outbursts of violence, but which fails to engage except on a superficial level. It’s a symptom of low budget, arthouse fare that we get interminable scenes of people staring out of or through windows, or lapsing into prolonged silence as if the mere fact of their being silent was evidence enough of some inner turmoil or struggle. In most cases this muted behaviour feels more like padding than incisive direction, and Ripstein’s efforts to convince us that these two characters are more than what we see never ring true.
Sadly, the movie is also let down (though not quite as badly) by Ripstein’s involvement in the editing, along with Santiago Pérez Rocha León. Between them, both men have shaped the style and rhythm of the movie in such a way that instead of feeling languid and somewhat pastoral in nature (which would have helped), it instead feels sluggish and lacking in passion. Certain scenes end abruptly, while others go on beyond their natural lifespan; it’s hard to know which way each scene will go. What is undeniably a plus for the production is Alain Marcoen’s simple yet highly effective cinematography, a great example of how to make a movie look dazzling even when using natural or low-level lighting.
Rating: 4/10 – audiences may well feel that 600 Miles is a triumph of style over substance, and while they might have a case, it’s Ripstein’s lack of directorial experience that hampers the movie and stops it from fulfilling its potential; Roth and Ferrer do their best to elevate the material, but they have so little to work with that ultimately, their efforts are in vain.