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‘Upon Entry’ Review: Early SXSW highlight teases one kind of thriller before unspooling another

Trump-era anxiety figures prominently into this Spanish movie about a young couple trying desperately to gain access into the U.S.
Credit: Óscar Fernández Orengo

AUSTIN, Texas — Spare in design but striking in its confidence, “Upon Entry” is a different kind of border thriller than it might be associated with given Texas is the stage for its U.S. premiere. Screening at South By Southwest this year, the movie’s transnational purgatory might be the claustrophobic interrogation rooms at La Guardia instead of the wide-open Chihuahuan Desert expanse, but if “Upon Entry” proves anything it’s that both poles of American entry – and, crucially, those who stand guard at them – are equally capable of dehumanization. 

But the means can vary, and it’s through that lens that co-directors Alejandro Rojas and Juan Sebastián Vásquez incriminate immigration systems that may or may not be built on prejudice. In “Upon Entry” the target of those systems is Alberto Ammann’s Diego, a Venezuelan national who fled the violence in his home country, and his Spanish partner Elena (Bruna Cusi); they’re arriving from Spain to make a new life for themselves in America. 

As we watch the young couple driving off to the airport, however, their excitement renders them oblivious to news reports of Donald Trump castigating immigrants and promising a wall. We know Diego and Elena’s welcome won’t be a warm one, and when a U.S. customs agent takes them to a secluded waiting room where they can’t even use their phones – capping an eerie early sequence that'll make you sit a little straighter in your seat – our suspicions are confirmed. 

Rojas and Vásquez could have taken that chilling idea and run with it. “Upon Entry” would've made for a perfectly adequate genre exercise had its expertly directed 70 minutes built up tension solely through the chip, chip, chipping away of a dream that barely had its chance to get off the ground. It could’ve coasted by on the power of its formal minimalism; the tight shots that trust the performers to justify them, the snappy editing, the lack of a score that fills the air with the dread of inevitability. It would’ve been perfectly sound for it to leave us skeptical about the country’s policies, and sympathetic for two characters for whom language barriers quickly become the least of their problems as they’re being asked the same questions over and over, divulging increasingly personal corners of their relationship in the process. 

But Vásquez and Rojas’s steely effort is more inquisitive – specifically about us, the ones bearing witness – than they initially suggest. Uninterested in binary explorations of complex issues, “Upon Entry” blurs distinctions of right and wrong, villain or victim, through the slow-onset realization that as Diego and Elena share more about who they are and where they come from, it’s more than just their entry that’s at stake. 

That epiphany lands like a gut-punch, and it’ll be far from the last one in this excellent movie… or the strongest. “Are you in love with your partner?” they’re asked at a point when we start to recognize why the complete lack of compassion has strained our credulity only to a certain point. It’s incredibly disarming how much we begin to see weaponized against them, and impressive for how believable it all feels. 

Much in the same way Vásquez and Roja are doing much more than stretching a short-film conceit to feature-length, these customs agents aren’t merely poking around the dark hoping to catch a slip-up. When the script starts pitting our presumptions against themselves, you start investing a little less in whether Diego and Elena will make their connecting flight and a little more in the distance growing between them. There comes a point when you suspect the movie has offered all it can thematically, but it’s nonetheless hard to ignore how the growing mountain of microaggression is overshadowing a simpler time from the film’s start. 

The movie’s conundrums don’t dance and wrestle with themselves in our minds if not for the soul-shattering performances from Ammann and Cusi; in a movie that’s almost entirely cutting between faces and reaction shots, they meticulously depict the agonizingly slow crumbling of a personal history we haven’t at all been privy too before we can glimpse it in their eyes and hear it in their words, growing ever shakier. They must convincingly balance frustration, uncertainty and confidence in what they’re saying—if they didn’t, “Upon Entry” couldn’t hope to be effective as a biting and ultimately cosmic sort of tragedy. Diego and Elene endure what amounts to a trial over the course of an anxiety-riddled hour, but their shattering has been so efficient that you’re left wondering if they can ever put themselves back together again, whether in the U.S. or elsewhere. 

"Upon Entry" continues screening at the South By Southwest Film Festival this week. It is awaiting U.S. distribution.




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