Premiering at SXSW earlier this year and recently screening in the Midnight Passion section of the Busan International Film Festival, Deadland is the feature debut of director Lance Larson, a compact drama/thriller that borders (pun intended) both on a realistic narrative and a supernatural plane.

At the US-Mexico border, time seems to stand still for a border patrol unit consisting of officers Waters, Veracruz and Hitchcock (this last name generally doesn’t bode well for movie characters ever since Seann William Scott’s ill fate in Final Destination). The officers are mostly bored overlooking the gloomy landscape through binoculars and seemingly abide by their own code, as we see them sending a teenage drug mule back across the border instead of making an arrest.

Angel Waters' (Roberto Urbina) routine is first interrupted by a sighting of a strange man (Luis Ch├ívez) who, against all cautions, tries to cross the dangerous waters and dies. On the way back to town with the man’s body, the bag slowly gets unzipped and the stranger comes back to life, all while demanding to go to El Paso. Having taken the man to the station for first aid, Angel goes home to his pregnant wife (Kendal Rae), and immediately realizes that his life is disrupted once more – by the arrival of yet another stranger (Manuel Uriza), who claims to be his long-lost father.

The situation soon propels the arrival of new players, a duet from Internal Affairs (played deliciously by veteran actors Chris Mulkey and Julio Cesar Cedillo), former border patrol officers themselves – raising a whole new set of questions about how the treatment of illegal migrants by law enforcement might have changed through the years. That’s one of the topics that clearly preoccupies Larson, who co-wrote the script with David Elliot (Four Brothers) and the film’s cinematographer Jas Shelton (The Stanford Prison Experiment). The other themes explored here include guilt and different ways people try to deal with it, and most of all, the roots of ancestry that some of the characters have deep connection to, yet struggle to rationalize.

The authors effectively bend the genres to their will, balancing between supernatural drama and thriller, with certain brief moments almost bordering on horror (the quiet unzipping of the body bag might stay with you long after the screening). At other times, Deadland also crosses into metapshysical territory with the visually stunning, oneiric images of a bleak desert where past and present (and possibly future) collide. The setting and the overall narrative offer a great deal of inspiration for both Lance’s direction and Shelton’s cinematography in magical realism that often verges on nightmarish. This reality has teeth, as does the past that never really stays buried.

The slightly heavy-handed way of getting the main points across is the only thing that brings Deadland down sometimes; it mostly affects the dialogue, which often operates on maxims and tries too hard for every other sentence to be meaningful. At the same time, the authors seem to be self-aware, as they don’t lean into the temptation of prolonging the running time into two or three hours (while the material allows it), capping the story at precisely the point where it hits the most.