"The Boatman" is an absorbing, intriguingly told dramatic thriller set on the U.S.-Mexico border that seems especially well-timed given the fractious state of America's immigration debate. Yet this haunting, often dreamlike film, confidently directed by Greg Morgan from a script by Morgan and Duke Addelman, also exists in a world of its very own making, lending it a compellingly elusive sense of time and place.
Above all, however, this is an affecting character study of Miguel (Oscar Torre), a mysterious "coyoté" with a 100% success rate smuggling immigrants across the Rio Grande River into Texas. Miguel, nicknamed "El Maldito" (The Cursed One), is both an angel and an antihero, a saint and a sinner, on a collision course with fate.
Meanwhile, Elena (Noemi Dunbar), a young car crash survivor, shows up claiming to be Miguel's daughter. Although he staunchly denies this possibility, Elena sticks around and is soon assisting Miguel and a feisty bar owner (Yvonne Delarosa, excellent) on his payroll. But can Miguel and Elena dodge dubious drug dealers and encroaching members of a Juárez gang who want in on El Maldito's territory?
Despite an atmosphere of simmering violence and criminal wrongdoing, "Boatman" is more art film than action film; deliberately paced, skillfully shot, emotionally challenging. It's all capped by Torre's powerful, darkly charismatic presence as the single-minded Miguel. Take this ride.
Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes
Playing: Arena Cinelounge, Hollywood