When the system wins

CU professor Alex Cox’s ‘The Highway Patrolman’ is a different type of cop flick

From the film, The Highway Patrolman
David Accomazzo | Boulder Weekly

It doesn’t take long for Alex Cox, University of Colorado Boulder assistant professor and director of such cult classics as Repo Man, Sid & Nancy, Walker and The Highway Patrolman (which screens at the International Film Series on Wednesday, Oct. 5), to show his famous independent streak. Just minutes into the conversation, he’s already articulating his take on Terrence Malick’s widely praised 2011 film, The Tree of Life, which had screened at the IFS the previous night.

“There’s 20 minutes of it that’s really great. Have you seen the film?” the British ex-pat asks. “There’s 20 minutes that’s just got no people in it. It’s just a bunch of pictures of nebulas that they animated and made move, and stuff off the surfaces of planets, followed by a sequence with the birth of life on earth and a plesiosaur and then a couple of dinosaurs. For 20 minutes, it’s just marvelous … like an experimental film.

“If only it was 90 minutes of that instead of two and a half hours of Sean Penn and a woman staring through a window. It would’ve been an incredible film!

“The way that The Tree of Life ends up, it looks like somebody’s rock video. They all go to the seaside at the end and meet each other and wander about, and you think, ‘Oh no, Bono’s going to show up in a minute and start singing.’”

It makes sense for Cox to be praising the experimental, abstract scenes of Tree of Life; after all, he has just joined the faculty of a CU film program conceived and sculpted by the late, legendary experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage. Cox is also an odd fit for the department, as his background, including 16 directorial credits and 45 screenplays, is in big-budget feature-length narratives and mainstream documentaries, whereas most experimental films are shorter, with little to no budget all.

To welcome the new faculty member, the International Film Series has been screening a retrospective of Cox’s work. It began with a pair of Cox’s cult classics, the 1984 film Repo Man, a punk-rock infused tale of a teenager who enters the repossession trade, and 1986’s Sid and Nancy, a gritty biopic of The Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious. Then came Walker, a 1987 film about rogue filibuster William Walker, who declared himself president of Nicaragua in 1850. On Sept. 29, the IFS will screen The Highway Patrolman (1991), Cox’s fifth feature-length film and, he says, his best.

“It’s probably the most solid film that I’ve made,” Cox says. “I’m probably prouder of Walker, because Walker was harder, and Walker takes more risks, and is more experimental, but I think in terms of being a good film, I think Highway Patrolman is the best film I’ve made.”

The studio-approved success of Repo Man and Sid and Nancy set Cox up as a budding directorial talent, but after Walker, an openly political attack on the United States’ intervention in Nicaragua, Cox had trouble finding mainstream work. After pitching two scripts that went nowhere, it dawned on him that he might not get a job in Hollywood again. Undaunted, he found a Japanese producer to invest in a new film, created a script with longtime collaborator Lorenzo O’Brien, and headed south of the border to film El Patrullero, the Spanish name for The Highway Patrolman.

Set in the sweltering Mexican desert, the film tells the story of Pedro (Roberto Sosa), a freshly minted highway patrolman, as he begins his career after graduating from the academy. At first, Pedro strictly enforces the law, giving tickets, impounding smuggled toys and giving them to a local orphanage, and keeping an eye out for drug smugglers and more serious crimes. He marries a farmer’s daughter whom he pulls over, and they have a baby.

Slowly, he realizes that the people he stops are too poor to pay tickets, so he stops giving them, resulting in a demotion to patrolling a highway frequented by pig farmers. His idealism slowly erodes, and he starts taking bribes and stealing impounded drugs to give to his prostitute girlfriend. When his best friend gets shot by drug dealers, Pedro vows revenge.

If the plot sounds a bit typical of an ’80s cop movie, don’t be fooled: The film is anything but. Instead of a hero overcoming incredible odds to triumph over evil, Pedro is, Cox says, “a guy just trying to survive and do his best, the best that he can, knowing that that isn’t very good, [which] is perhaps a lesson for us all.” Shot entirely in Spanish with an entirely Mexican cast and crew (Cox and O’Brien were the only foreigners), the film features just 187 cuts — or, IFS Director Pablo Kjolseth points out, as many cuts as the first 10 minutes of a Michael Bay film. Instead, Cox leans heavily on his actors (Sosa in particular, who’s in nearly every frame) to carry the film through gorgeously choreographed long takes, creating a gritty realism lacking in your typical cut-happy Hollywood film.

“I was more interested by that point in this thing that the Mexicans call plano secuencia, or the long take, because it did feel to me that the language of films was getting kind of stultified,” Cox says. “There was a sort of frenetic editing strategy that was driving feature films as well, and so it had gotten to the point even by the late ’80s that one could sit in the theater and predict when the cuts were going to come.

“It was very freeing to, say, when we go through a door, we’re not going to stop, go to a different location, shoot the other side and have the actor come out of the door. We’re going to go through the door with the actor. Just to do that was very liberating.”

The film lacks a happy, sentimental ending, instead opting for a sobering, realistic one. Pedro gets revenge, but not the ultimate revenge he was seeking. It’s not a story of a cop who beats the system, but rather a story of a cop who, little by little, finds himself forced to succumb to it.

Cox and O’Brien got the idea for the film in Mexico while scouting locations to shoot certain scenes in Walker.

Their driver was an ex-highway patrolman, and as they drove around Mexico in his Volkswagen Camper, he regaled Cox and O’Brien with tales of being a cop. Cox and O’Brien thought there might be a screenplay there, and they later turned the driver’s experiences into The Highway Patrolman.

The IFS will screen The Highway Patrolman — and the three films remaining in the Cox retrospective, Death and the Compass, Three Businessmen and Revengers Tragedy — on 35 mm prints. The full schedule is at www.internationalfilmseries.com.

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The Highway Patrolman screens at Muenzinger Auditorium on Wednesday, Oct. 5. Starts at 7 p.m. A Q-and-A with director Alex Cox follows. Tickets are $7, $6 for students/seniors. 1801 Colorado Ave., Boulder. For more information, visit www.internationalfilmseries.com.