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Greg Morgan - Director
"On this border, even death has a guide"
On the border of the US
and Mexico, there are whispers of a Coyote. A man so
adept at sneaking immigrants across, none of his "mojados," his people, have
ever been caught. They call this man, El Maldito, but when young Elena
enters his life and claims to be his daughter, El Maldito is forced to
confront his many demons.
The Boatman is Miguel, an atypical anti-hero who straddles two bizarre worlds. He is the only "Coyote," or human smuggler, with a perfect record, a coyote who never fails to deliver his human cargo safely. He helps an endless, faceless stream of migrants to cross the river that seemingly separates them from a better life. Yet he is also "El Maldito", cursed to wander a desert littered with smashed up cars and battered corpses.
This strange existence has taken its toll. He is a hard drinking man of few words, burdened by a hazy past. His struggle to understand himself and the curse that hangs over him drives this striking new independent release from writer/director Greg Morgan and co-screenwriter Duke Addleman.
Trouble is never far away for Miguel. As the film begins, menacing, recently released gangster Norberto demands details of his routes across the border. To make matters worse he learns a rival gang, "The Juarez." are on their way to take over his turf. With the violent outside world fast closing in, his emotional life is thrown into turmoil when he finds the beautiful Elena in a wrecked car, flanked by two dead girls.
He rescues her, and when she recovers, she insists she is the daughter he never knew. She isn't put off by his gruff refusal to discuss his past, and follows him around everywhere he goes, questioning him at every opportunity, forcing him to think about things he has long buried or long forgotten. With a fading photograph of her dead mother, she begins to convince him of the truth, but all is not what it seems, and the truth is an elusive construct in The Boatman.
Indeed, the dead are ever present. Each time he sets out from his base in a border town bar, Miguel finds mangled bodies. He hears unanswered cries for help from the dying, the dead seemingly come back to life to deliver strange messages, and he is driven by a compulsion to pass on their final words to their loved ones. But his attempts to bridge the real world and the afterlife are futile. When he calls relatives to give them the sad news, he is invariably told he must be mistaken, and that the victims he has found are actually long dead.
Miguel's life is filled with rituals and plagued by bad habits. He meticulously records the names of every client in his red book. His house is a museum, the walls lined with old pictures. He deals with his confusion by drinking until he drops. His alcoholism is an act of forgetting. It seems that only the local bar owner, Proserpina, at La Madrinas Bar has any handle on his inner existence, but when the heavies from Juarez begin to arrive, she disappears, leaving him with only Elena to help him make sense of his world.
A recurring motif throughout is a silver coin which Miguel turns up again and again. He finds the coin at crash sites, he is offered the coin in payment for a crossing by a bankrupt migrant, and he is obsessive about the amounts his clients pay to cross the river.
Everyone in the film is unsettled, from the migrants who pass through town in a flash to Norberto, who has conflicted loyalties he cannot reveal to his fellow gang members. Even Elena seems unsure of herself, she is desperate for answers and affirmation from Miguel.
Both the cinematography and the performances set an eerie stage and mirror the strange border culture where American and Latin influences mix. Each setting generates its own particular brand of unease, from the confusion of the darkness during the crossings, to the stark white desert light and the grubby neon netherworld where deals are made, lives collide and Miguel sinks tequilas.
The film crosses genres and defies expectations. At first it's a gritty, slow burning drama which revolves around the Mexican migrants and the outlaws who help them cross the border, but it soon takes a darker, more mysterious turn. With themes of identity, death and coming to terms with loss, it plays on the concept of memory, and Morgan has peppered The Boatman with snippets of horror and tantalizing glimpses of a netherworld which never quite crystallizes into reality.
The Boatman builds to an eerie climax as the men from Juarez cause carnage and his would be daughter, Elena, takes centre stage. He must learn the true meaning of Elena's appearance and search his foggy memory to remember her mother. Gradually, agonizing, the truth is revealed to Miguel and he begins to understand his supernatural purpose, and the different fates that await him and his daughter. The ending is a near religious experience, as much of a shock as it is a resolution.