The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Contemporary western ‘No Man’s Land’ covers well-trod ground, with a few pleasures along the way

Jake Allyn in “No Man’s Land.” (IFC Films)
(2.5 stars)

The main action of “No Man’s Land” — the flight of a young Texan on the lam from the law in Mexico — is precipitated by something of a head-scratcher. When Jackson (Jake Allyn), the son of a cattle rancher whose land lies north of the Rio Grande but south of the border wall, is involved in a chaotic, nighttime confrontation with a Mexican family that ends in bloodshed and one death, he lights out the next day on his horse across the river.

Why? And to where? It’s initially not clear — especially, perhaps, to Jackson — who is plagued by guilt over his role in the violence, yet who seems to have accepted his fate.

Well, maybe not quite accepted.

Although the protagonist’s father (Frank Grillo) has lied to the investigating Texas Ranger, Ramirez (George Lopez), to protect his son, Jackson virtually admits his culpability in a conversation the morning after the incident with Ramirez. But whatever uncertainty remains in Ramirez’s mind evaporates when Jackson runs away. It’s an impulse: rash, heedless, self-incriminating. But instead of returning, upon reflection, to face punishment — which on one level he seems ready to do — he keeps going, aimlessly.

So to repeat: Why?

He’s young. He’s not thinking. And blah blah blah. The real answer, of course, is that the screenplay (co-written by Allyn and David Barraza, and directed by the actor’s brother, Conor Allyn) demands it. “No Man’s Land” is not a story of crime and punishment but one of atonement, forgiveness and discovery, the last of which, as it slowly — and I mean slowly — reveals itself, is the entire reason for this story.

The climax is ultimately not so much our epiphany as it is Jackson’s. And that’s the main problem with “No Man’s Land.” We know where it — and Jackson — is heading before he does.

Is the payoff enough to justify watching our hero as he — let’s face it — wastes time? Jackson takes a job as a laborer for a Mexican family with a pretty, flirty daughter (Esmeralda Pimentel), simultaneously evading Ramirez; the grieving father of the victim, bent on revenge (Jorge A. Jimenez); and a thug he’s run afoul of (Andrés Delgado). Is it enough to watch him learn, awkwardly, at times, that his preconceptions about Mexico and Mexicans are false? Perhaps so, but by a hair.

Allyn is fine in the role of the slightly dim-bulb quarry: a naive young man running not from justice but toward redemption and enlightenment. And his pursuers — nicely played by Lopez and, especially so, by Jimenez, as the giver of absolution — add a bit of needed grit and complexity to an otherwise pat dynamic.

“No Man’s Land” doesn’t quite cover uncharted territory in the way its creators seem to want it to. Nor does it arrive at a destination you can’t see coming from miles away. Still, the destination makes the tedium of the trip worthwhile.

PG-13. Available on various streaming platforms. Contains some strong language and violence. In English and Spanish with subtitles. 115 minutes.