Review: UNDOCUMENTED (2010)

A political polemic tries to hide it’s intentions behind the window dressing of a horror film.

Undocumented post imageUNDOCUMENTED (2010)

DIRECTOR: Chris Peckover

CAST: Scott Mechlowicz, Alona Tal, Yancey Arias, Greg Serano, Kevin Weisman, Peter Stormare

MPAA RATING: Unrated

 

It’s unusual for a horror film to attempt to involve itself in a specific current, controversial and contentious political debate. Unfortunately, when horror cinema and the horror community get dragged into a political debate, it’s usually to blame them for any number of social ills. At one point or another, horror films have been blamed for just about everything other than political corruption. UNDOCUMENTED takes the unusual step of attempting to inject itself into a hot political topic, illegal immigration (just in case the title didn’t make it clear).

The film follows a documentary crew as the attempt to follow a group of Mexican immigrants crossing the border illegally. When they are all caught by a group of vigilantes, the crew is put to work documenting the activities of the vigilantes and their captive immigrants in a makeshift compound. As you can imagine, it’s not at all fun for the film crew or the immigrants.

One of the most common mistakes made by many films attempting to be topical is that they become badly written polemics. The film makers are so intent on trying to be sure that the audience not only understands what it is that they are trying to say, but also that they’ve told their story in a way that leaves no chance the audience could possibly disagree with their perspective on the topic that it becomes more a sermon than a story. Not only does it suggest there is absolutely no way anyone could disagree, it also assumes that the audience must not be intelligent enough to have come to their own conclusions without having a conclusion written on a metaphorical two by four and repeatedly slammed into the side of their heads. It’s one thing for an actual documentary to use evidence of different kinds to support its thesis, and something entirely different when a film maker just makes up a story, and then has no faith in their audience sense of either decency or intelligence to lead them to a sensible conclusion. I should be up front and very clear here, there is absolutely nothing I dislike more in a fictional narrative than being preached to in a way that suggests I’d have been too stupid or lack the basic decency to have come to my own conclusion. I may one hundred percent agree with the perspective the film makers are attempting to convince their audience to come to, and I will still, vehemently dislike the movie. I might agree with the film makers opinion about the topic, but a crap movie is a crap movie. At the same time, if a film maker has an opinion about a topic that I disagree with, but their film is well done and doesn’t treat the audience like drooling morons, I can recognize that it’s a well made film. UNDOCUMENTED unfortunately makes the mistake of becoming a sermon. I agree with the film makers opinion on the topic their addressing and still believe this is a terrible way to make the argument.

The first act of the film shows us the documentary crew traveling to and arriving in Mexico. It introduces the crew and the immigrants they are going to accompany in crossing the border. Some of the dialog is a little flat, but director Chris Peckover also paints the Mexican characters in pretty one dimensional and stereotypical ways. He’s as patronizing toward the characters as he is toward the audience.

The second act of the film involves the entire group that had been trying to cross the border being caught by this group of vigilantes. At this point it becomes clear that basically all of the characters, with one exception, are going to be painted in broad, one dimensional strokes. This is also where the gore and torture begin. In the first truly graphic scene in the film, Peckover handles it well enough to have the audience not just siding with the protagonists, but wishing for the vigilantes to get finished off right there. The problem is that he never raises the stakes very much from there and only one of the characters ever becomes real and fully drawn enough for the audience to care about what’s happening to them. The shock of that initial scene wears off relatively quickly, especially for anyone whose seen their fair share of graphically violent horror films.

The third act is more of the same, as the inevitable kill count rises and the movie does it’s level best to portray this band of vigilantes as evil incarnate. Peter Stormare, hidden behind a mesh mask for the entire film, makes a number of speeches designed to make sure the audience can’t possibly hate him more. If watching him order and participate in the torture, hate and dismemberment that are throughout the second and third acts aren’t enough, Peckover is going to make sure he gives the audience yet another reason.

Alona Tal gets the lone character in the film that we can actually care about at all. She’s the strongest character and the one who shows the most backbone, without coming off as a caricature. Maybe she’s just that talented or maybe her character was given more attention in the writing process, but she comes out with the best character through the entire process.

It’s possible to use a horror film to say something about topics that are controversial and taboo. AMERICAN PSYCHO takes on the subject of masculine self image and materialism brilliantly through it’s satire. MARTYRS makes a convincing statement about Christian fascination with making women suffer for purity. HOSTEL has some definite things to say about the economics of exploitation (the social phenomenon, not the film genre). SEVERANCE speaks to the unseen effects of globalization and the incentives of weapons manufacturing. HELLRAISER was explicitly about sexual repression and it’s consequences. SPLICE updated the Frankenstein mythology in order to make a point about the possible unseen consequences of genetic engineering. COMPLIANCE was speaking to peoples inability to question authority when it’s crucial, and its consequences. All of these are films that are at least decent, and a few of them are downright brilliant. None of them is screeching a sermon at their audiences though. All of them leave enough of these things as subtext to allow the individual viewer to work them out and come to their own conclusions. They’re all also at least as interested in telling good stories, being entertaining or engaging and developing interesting characters as they are in saying whatever it is they have to say about the topic they’ve chosen.

All that UNDOCUMENTED does is to suggest the film makers and anyone else who shares the opinion is as intolerant as the vigilantes the film portrays. It ends up hurting the cause it’s trying to champion. If you’re looking for a reason to hate rednecks, and people who use a particular political vocabulary, this is for you. Gore hounds might be satisfied with some of the films more graphic moments, but other than that, there’s not much at all here to even enjoy.

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