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A lesson in how the other half lives

Director-producer John Carlos Frey also stars as a border guard with split heritages and emotions in 'The Gatekeeper.'

March 19, 2004|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

Like many first films, John Carlos Frey's "The Gatekeeper" has a certain stiffness and awkwardness at the start, but this deeply personal work steadily grows more powerful and eloquent, creating a tragic vision of the plight of illegal aliens that transcends its melodramatic elements.

As its writer-producer-director, Frey, a seasoned actor, casts himself as Adam Fields, a 12-year Border Patrol officer who has become so hostile to those who try to cross the border illegally that he has thrown his lot with a virulently right-wing, anti-illegal immigrant organization. He has gone so far as to agree to enter Mexico and then try to re-enter the U.S. illegally as part of a renegade sting operation for the anti-immigrant group.

What the group doesn't know is that Fields himself is half-Mexican, and his hatred is fueled by contempt for his Mexican mother, a prostitute who never knew which of her many customers fathered her son. But by becoming an illegal immigrant himself, Fields discovers the full measure of the desperation that drives people to try to cross the border with the hope that even the most menial job in the U.S. would allow them to provide better support for their families back in Mexico.

In Tijuana, Fields asks around until he locates a shopkeeper whose arts and crafts store is a front for his smuggling operation. Fields must pay 30,000 pesos -- about $2,750 -- up front and work a full year on a ranch across the border. He has entered a world of deadly danger and savage brutality. His crossing the border with a small group of immigrants is not without incident, but the real hardships lie ahead.

Most of the now-illegal immigrants are sent to work the crops, but Fields is ordered to work in a highly toxic crystal-meth lab with Jose Luis (Joe Pascual), who so loves his family he is willing to risk his health and his life to provide more opportunities for his son. Meanwhile, Eva (Michelle Agnew), an attractive young woman with a small son, is ordered to work as a housekeeper for the evil patron (Joel Brooks). Once he looks her over it's clear what's in store for her.

Fields, however, is transformed by the dangerous ordeal in which he has become trapped. He discovers and accepts his own identity as he develops respect for the plight of illegal immigrants. Frey makes this process convincing, both as an actor and filmmaker, and brings to this portrayal his own change of heart as he matured. He was born in Mexico but brought up in San Diego, where, Frey has written, "my appearance and my name didn't automatically reveal my Hispanic heritage." As a child eager to escape the chronic discrimination against Mexicans he witnessed in school and in the media this suited him fine, but growing up within sight of the border wall and all that it implied ultimately had an effect on him he could not deny.

The passion and commitment Frey has brought to making "The Gatekeeper" clearly fueled his inspiration to make a film that gets better as it goes along. Some of his characters are stock, but along with his own performance, Agnew and especially Anne Betancourt as Lenora, a wise and kindly cook at the field workers' makeshift compound, bring crucial dimensions to their roles and thereby to the film itself. By the time this most committed of films is over, drama has transcended both the lurid and the didactic.

*

'The Gatekeeper'

MPAA rating: R, for language and violence including a rape

Times guidelines: Inappropriate and too intense for children

John Carlos Frey...Adam Fields

Michelle Agnew...Eva Ramirez

Anne Betancourt...Lenora

Joel Brooks...Vance Johnson

Joe Pascual...Jose Luis

A Gatekeeper Productions in association with Envision Films presentation. Writer-producer-director John Carlos Frey. Producers Joseph Hogen, Connie Dolph. Executive producer Jack Lorenz. Cinematographer Kris Denton. Editor Jacek Kropinski. Music Carlo Giacco. Costumes Julie Reeder. Production designer Daren Jones. Running time: 1 hour, 22 minutes.

Exclusively at the Monica 4-Plex, 1332 2nd. St., Santa Monica, (310) 394-9741, and the Playhouse 7, 673 Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, (626) 844-6500.

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