Deadland, premiering at SXSW, is a lovely ghost story that is as hopeful as it is heartwrenching, with raw performances and stunning imagery.
There are some stories that are universal. Regardless of the subject matter or characters, there is something everyone can relate to. Deadland is one of those stories. Haunting, poignant, and powerful, it is a ghost story, first and foremost, but not the kind of ghost story you expect. Relevant and deeply resonant, Lance Larson’s feature debut is a beautiful piece that makes you think about what it means to be human and how we make the choices we do.
Set on the Texas and Mexican border, border agents Angel Waters, Salomé Veracruz, and Ray Hitchcock see terrible things every day. It has taken its toll on this tight-knit group. When a routine border crossing apprehension turns into a nightmare, everything they thought they knew about themselves and each other is put into question. A man who walks into the river and seemingly drowns miraculously comes too into the back of Angel’s vehicle. He immediately takes him to his fellow agents, hoping to give the injured man the medical care he needs.
Right after arriving at the facility, his wife calls, saying a mysterious man is at their house. Angel has no choice but to leave his team and the apprehended man to help his wife. But, unfortunately, while Angel is gone, things end tragically, setting off a chain reaction of events that spans decades and involves Angel’s missing father.
The trio decides to bury the body in the desert, but they soon find the ghosts that haunt us aren’t easy to get rid of. As they start seeing things they can’t explain and are forced to confront the consequences of their decisions, they all change and grow—some for better and others for worse.
It’s a beautiful film described by star Roberto Urbina, Snowpiercer’s Javier, and Larson as a love letter to fatherhood. Cosmic questions about the power of love elevate this simple ghost story or border tale to something far grander than it initially presents. The mysticism and magic that surround and are inherent in many cultures find their way into Deadland in an utterly unique way. Moments of magical realism weave seamlessly with their gritty counterparts to put the viewer under Deadland’s spell.
The entire cast is excellent, using subtlety to convey a wealth of emotions. Luis Chávez as the strange man has a thousand-yard stare that must be seen and truly makes the scary scene frightening. He says very little, and yet you feel every emotion of the mournful man. Angel and his wife Hannah(Kendal Rae) have a very lived-in quality to their relationship. Hannah is the moral center for the audience to cling to when things deteriorate. Despite her quiet demeanor Hannah is strong, and Rae breathes a believable power into her character that the film benefits from.
Contrastly Ray Hitchcock(McCaul Lombardi), Hitch to his friends, is a flawed mess of a man who is a product of his trauma. He may make some terrible decisions, but he does it for relatable reasons. Lombardi manages to make him a sympathetic bad guy you can’t bring yourself to write off entirely. Julieth Restrepo’s Agent Veracruz is equally sympathetic as she deals with issues of working in a predominantly male career and coping with the daily horrors border agents face. Along with Angel, she has the most significant and rewarding character arcs. Finally, Chris Mulkey(Agent Hobbs), as one half of a villainous partnership, is chilling, presenting the world as it once was and, unfortunately, sometimes still is.
The film, shot mainly in Oklahoma as a stand-in for Texas, is beautiful in a dusty, sun-soaked way. It very much feels like the wild west, where anything is possible. It’s a slow burn that Larson patiently allows to play out. Pacing and editing are excellent, turning up the pressure when needed and giving us moments to reflect.
Deadland is a surprising film that quietly sneaks up on you to deliver chills and emotionality in equal measures. Find all our SXSW 2023 coverage here.
As the Managing Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre entertainment. I grew up with old-school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. My work can be found here and Travel Weird, where I am the Editor in Chief.