** (out of ****)
Cortez’ utter devotion to formula betrays it. This is a film with a solid basis in characters whom it does not seem to know how to handle. For its first act, the facade of an intentionally aimless drama carries it into a second act that is built upon deconstructing our ideas of its characters and their shared histories. Strong singular moments are peppered throughout, and the actors all seem to be in sync. Co-writer/director Cheryl Nichols’s film starts with such quiet ambition that it’s only the more disheartening when it all leads to an explosion of unearned melodrama in the third act. The resultant dramatic whiplash – from decided honesty to cheap sanctimony – is startling.
The film concerns the downward spiral in the lives of two broken souls in middle-of-nowhere New Mexico. One of them is Jesse (Arron Shiver, who also co-wrote the screenplay), a failing musician who derails his next job by stopping to see his ex-girlfriend Anne (Nichols), with whom he very clearly has a tortured past. The moment of reunion between these two is played just right: the shock of recognition on her part, the realization of inevitability on his face. This meeting cannot go well, and for a while, Nichols and Shiver mine a lot from the unspoken past as a romance rekindles rather sweetly.
The aimlessness of the affair doesn’t last, and eventually, Jesse visits, without invitation, the home she has built as a single mother to Ben (Jackson Shiver) with the help of her own, Sandy (Judith Ivey, in a performance of immense compassion). More unspoken truths about the past build up with an extended family dinner in which the first signs of trouble raise their head. The gentle nature of this build-up, such as the expression on Jesse’s face upon seeing Ben and something connecting behind his oft-judgmental eyes, is compelling and well-handled by Nichols, who also has a keen eye for the region without resorting to flowery technique.
The final stretch undoes it, concocting false drama from an extended scene of hiking in which the shoe must drop in showing us Jesse’s real nature. He’s a loser, basically, and the film’s insistence upon trying to get us to see another side of him is far from convincing in practice. That is despite a fine performance from the younger Shiver as a kid who can read the older man like a book. The casting of a father/son pair makes one of the aforementioned unspoken truths a little too obvious to work beyond merely being suggestive, but that wouldn’t be a problem if Cortez, which gets its name from the seeker of gold for a sneaky reason not revealed until the end, wasn’t so dishonest when it must confront the suggestion.
(Review by Joel Copling)