Highway Patrolman (Alex Cox, 1991)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Highway Patrolman.

criterion logoAgainst his father’s wishes, Pedro – a naïve kid from Mexico City – joins the Highway Patrol.  His simple desire to do good rapidly comes into conflict with the reality of police work in a lonely rural environment populated by poor farmers, rich drug dealers, and beautiful women.  British director Alex Cox takes his anti-authoritarian politics to Mexico and creates a series of long-take master shots that explore the futility of imposing good on others and rejects cinema’s glamorized views of law enforcement.  Marking Cox’s full removal from the Hollywood filmmaking machine, Highway Patrolman is a mature, observational reflection on societal corruption and personal accountability in the heat and dust northern Mexico.

Disc Features:

  • High definition digital transfer with 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • New introduction by director Alex Cox
  • Audio commentary with Cox and writer-producer Lorenzo O’Brien
  • Patrulleros & Patrulleras, a collection of interviews by Cox of cast and crew
  • From Edge City of Mapini, a monologue by Cox on the connections between his first film Edge City and Highway Patrolman
  • Edge City, Cox’s UCLA thesis film
  • New interview with Miguel Sandoval on the film’s casting and on working with Alex Cox
  • PLUS: A new essay by critic F. X. Feeney

In a December 2015 podcast conversation with Criterion Close-Up (CCU19), Alex Cox names Highway Patrolman his best film, or at least the film for which he’s the most proud.  He also notes that El Patrullero (as it’s known in Spanish) is available to the Criterion Collection should the label ever be interested.  With 3 films already part of the Collection (4 if you include Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), although Cox doesn’t seem to), Alex Cox would seem to potentially hold the label’s unofficial “most favoured director” status, so why wouldn’t Criterion be interested in more Cox?  And with Highway Patrolman standing as the director’s best work since his departure from commercial Hollywood cinema and the second film in his unofficial Central American trilogy, the inclusion of El Patrullero into the Criterion Collection would demonstrate the continuing, but little appreciated, evolution of a maverick filmmaker.

Cox’s embrace of Highway Patrolman as his exemplar feature certainly begs the question, “Why?”  Cox is famous for Repo Man (1984) and Sid & Nancy (1986), and with both films clearly connected to the punk scene, it’s rather surprising to hear Cox prefer a film focused upon a corrupt authority figure acting on behalf of a repressive establishment.  Yet while Repo Man and Sid & Nancy might be about punks, Highway Patrolman is a punk film.  It represents narratively the ethical conflict of conscientiously living in a corrupting society, tells its story in resistance to the hegemonic commercial film form, and was produced outside of the Hollywood movie complex.  That’s true punk – intelligent, engaged, liberated punk – and we’ll unpack that further, but we should talk about our titular figure and his journey first.

Highway Patrolman opens with Pedro Rojas (Roberto Sosa) becoming a freshly minted member of the Patrulla Nacional de Carreteras (a stand-in entity for the Federal Highway Patrol that disapproved of the film’s script and refused to lend its likeness).  Rojas survives the abuse and petty corruption of the police academy and is assigned to Matimi, Durango, in Mexico’s rural north with his friend Anibal Guerrero (Bruno Bichir).  Life on the job wears on Pedro’s ideals and he gradually succumbs to the pressures of modest pay, the demands of his wife Griselda (Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez), the disapproval of his absent father, and an institutionalized system of graft and preference that works from senior politicians and their spoiled, entitled children to everyday truck drivers and labourers.  Pedro begins taking bribes and stripping accident victims of valuables to make ends meet and ease the daily conflicts that arise during his efforts to enforce the law.  He takes up with a prostitute named Maribel (Vanessa Bauche) on the side and gets shot in the leg during a traffic stop, leaving him with a permanent limp.  When Anibal is murdered by drug traffickers, Pedro commits himself to revenge, but no great victory is won over the criminals that killed his friend and the ordeal instead brings Pedro to free himself of his hypocritical place in a corrupt justice system.

hp_Cox_VillarealAlex Cox has described the film as being about “the impossibility of imposing good on people.”  Highway Patrolman reflects Cox’s distrust of authority typical to his earlier films, but alters its scale.  Political and social corruption works in Matimi from the top down.  Politicians and senior public servants are involved in graft and the drug trade, and that corruption trickles down to the general populace through abuse and exploitation, coalescing as modest bribery, petty theft, and the spread of scofflaws.  As Bruno Bichir observes, Pedro’s conflict is found in becoming a corrupt individual without becoming an evil person.  He sinks into the tolerably dishonest behaviour of his community without managing to lose the sense of justice that brought him to law enforcement.  Eventually, Pedro determines that doing right requires him to step outside of his bureaucratized position, seeking revenge against the narcos that killed Anibal and helping reform Maribel from a life of drugs and prostitution.  Pedro’s idealism cannot be effectively transferred or enforced on others, but it also cannot be fully extinguished from within him either.  The sentiment that good must be fostered from within is a difficult one, being too small and easily threatened by external forces, but it may be the best we can do.  Watching Pedro and Maribel at the film’s conclusion, it’s easy to feel that Maribel demands that Pedro do more than his share of the heavy lifting to better herself, but Cox’s view may ultimately be that those efforts ennoble Pedro regardless of what Maribel might achieve for herself.

Highway Patrolman‘s central struggle of a principled young man in an exploitative system is one that is answered by the mode of Cox’s production and the technique of his storytelling.  Made without stars (with casting by the fabulous Miguel Sandoval!) and without Hollywood money, Highway Patrolman is without the usual feature film airs, egos, or compromises.  It is made according to Cox’s vision, cast with best talent available.  In this regard, the film’s star, Roberto Sosa, may seem undersized for law enforcement and for being a leading man, but Cox cast for the best performer and not the movie’s poster.

The most obvious break from conventional Hollywood narrative is Cox’s preference to shoot El Patrullero in what Arturo Ripstein called plano secuencia; long, moving master shots.  With Bazinian principle, Cox rejected “The Monoform,” a term used by Peter Watkins to describe a “style of rapid-edited music-aided filmmaking which applies whether it’s a commercial or a rock video or whatever.” Going further, Cox stated:

I’d become frustrated at sitting in a cinema and being able to predict the cuts back and forth between Meryl Streep and Mel Gibson … In fact I was very interested when the Dogme rules came out, supposedly against ‘manipulation’, because they seemed completely happy with the conventional editing of film, which seems to me the most manipulative technique of all.

While Highway Patrolman seems to convey a greater degree of restraint than that of his earlier films, Cox in fact trades rebellion in his story for rebellion in his storytelling.  In doing so, his effort becomes freeing the viewer rather than attempting to librate his characters.  He enables his audience to find things on their own, make choices about the film and its content, and ascribe meaning that is rewarding to themselves individually.  These moments become most poignant in Highway Patrolman‘s desperate sequences, as the film prevents us from finding comfort in a cut, to use the apparatus as a means to deflect true understanding and claim false appreciation.  As Pedro runs from his broken-down patrol car in a futile effort to save Anibal, Cox’s camera lingers unflinchingly on the patrolman’s long, laboured, and limping sprint.  We are forced to observe his haggard breath, his painful gait across the unforgiving blacktop, and the agonizingly slow progress being made.  Cox challenges his audience here, offering them no reprieve through cross-cutting or changes in perspective.  If punk is fundamentally about freedom, then Cox truly finds a punk voice in Highway Patrolman that is still being searched for in Repo Man and Sid & Nancy, using the long take to liberate himself, his actors, and ultimately the viewer from the dogmatic hegemony of classical Hollywood cinema and an editing style that reduces the actor’s work to an assembly of factory-specified components and the audience’s role to junk food cinema consumers.

Denton WattsIn the intro to his memoir X Films: True Confessions of a Radical Filmmaker, Cox quotes from the tombstone of another Criterion confederate, Paul Robeson – “The artist must elect to fight for freedom or slavery.  I made my choice.  I had no alternative.”  El Patrullero seems Cox’s most clearly voiced effort to fight for artistic and individual freedom, perhaps his graduation to the status of a true artist.  It might be argued that Cox has earned the inclusion of Highway Patrolman in the Criterion Collection based on the cumulative influence of those other films already bearing spine-numbers.  Certainly the Collection’s investment in past works by Cox would support the release of this lesser known but equally accomplished film.

With regard to a cover treatment, Austin-based designer Denton Watts creates woodcuts well-suited to Highway Patrolman.  The outlaw spirit and Mexican iconography in his work makes Watts thematically suitable, while the handmade quality to his printmaking nicely compliments Cox’s own DIY ethic and the graphic style to the cover treatments already preferred by the Collection for Cox’s other titles.

Credits:  Highway Patrolman‘s Region 1 DVD by Microcinema International now out of print, paving the way for a Criterion edition of the film.  We’ve adapted our cover synopsis from that DVD, as well as having ported over the commentary and all of its special features.  We’ve also added a new introduction by Cox and an interview with actor Miguel Sandoval who cast the film.  (Sandoval skipped final auditions for Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino, 1992), where he was up for the role of Mr. Pink, to oversee El Patrullero‘s casting!)  F.X. Feeney was chosen to provide an essay given his pre-existing relationship with the Criterion Collection and for his positive review of the film for L.A. Weekly.

Big thanks to Criterion Close-Up for their interview with Cox and for putting Highway Patrolman on MMC!‘s radar.  Cox’s X Films:True Confessions of a Radical Filmmaker is a great read and an insightful overview of Cox’s career that we strongly recommend to anyone interested in his work.  This post was greatly assisted by Cox’s discussion of his film on his own website, Richard Kelly’s “Alex Cox: Dedicated to the Struggle,” Chris Neill’s “Walker: American Neo-Imperialism and the Will to Self-Destruction,” and Andrew Pulver’s “The John Ford of the Wirral.”

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One thought on “Highway Patrolman (Alex Cox, 1991)

  1. aaronwest March 15, 2016 / 2:10 am

    What a great post! Glad you enjoyed the conversation. Hopefully someone at Criterion listened and will take Mr. Cox up on his offer. I have yet to see the film. It would be terrific if that first viewing had the big C on the corner.

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