Fronting: Harrison Thomas in 600 Miles

in 55th Cartagena International Film Festival

by Michael Pattison

As Carson, one of the two young males earning cash smuggling weapons from the US into Mexico in Gabriel Ripstein’s debut feature 600 Miles (600 Millas), Harrison Thomas cuts an ostensibly simple figure. Stalking along the aisles and browsing the shelves of a drearily beige, suspiciously unassuming firearms store, this blond-haired, blue-eyed adolescent must act beyond his years, maturity and experience if he is to successfully pull off his task—namely, to regularly purchase guns without drawing attention to himself, so that his employer can sell or make use of them in an ongoing turf and drugs war south of the border.

As for so many other adolescent boys in a nation that continues to maintain an aggressively militarist foreign policy and absurd domestic gun laws alongside outmoded and dangerous ideas of masculinity, however, Carson’s simplicity is part of a complicated performance. That this performance is convincing to a number of store owners is merely a further indictment of a national crisis and the extent to which organised and casual violence—and the criminal underbelly and side economies it underpins—pervades everyday life in Obama’s America.

Carson’s effrontery is undercut by his sauce-bottle shoulders, whose sag is exaggerated by the plain, oversized t-shirts he wears. His unremarkable, pubescent lankiness is exemplified best by the giant watch hanging on his wrist. The macho grappling he engages in with accomplice Arnulfo (Kristyan Ferrer, best known for his work in 2009’s Sin Nombre), meanwhile, has a knowingly performative—perhaps even homoerotic—edge. On the job, Carson demonstrates an intuition for the complex, negotiational nature of his work: he must be charming but unmemorable, he must be cocky enough to be plausible but not enough to be offensive, he must be polite but confident, knowledgeable but inquisitive; he must above all be calm and also ready, at any moment, to run.

Though Carson is a decidedly and dismissibly minor character in the grander scheme of 600 Miles’ rug-pulling narrative, Thomas’ own performance lends a similarly negotiational quality to proceedings: his is a knowing but never pretentious performance, and he brings his scenes to life with the merest of gestures. While a young actor is often the focus of a film, s/he is rarely such a commandingly vibrant presence. Thomas is 24; Robert De Niro was 29 in Mean Streets.

Consider the moment in which Thomas, as Carson, puffs his shoulders and chest while sitting across a table from Ferrer, as Arnulfo, to rise to a playful challenge. When Carson leans across the table to knock his pal’s cap from his head, Thomas shows that rare combination of qualities: timing, naturalism, liveliness and, yes, maturity. Arnulfo has less patience for these scenarios than his friend does, owing perhaps to his nerves; he sits in the car while Carson charms the gun store employees. On one such occasion, Carson hones in upon his friend’s fear with predatory daftness, exiting a store to feign an armed carjacking by pointing the newly-bought firearm into the car.

If the character is obnoxious, he isn’t necessarily without empathy: Thomas does well to convey the ways in which Carson must half-instinctively embody a persona that is both tough and casual in light of Arnulfo’s palpably more apprehensive nature. Indeed, while Arnulfo might see his inevitable undoing whenever he looks in the rear mirror (or even at himself, in his bedroom), one can imagine that Carson’s own response to a nervy situation or even standoff would be to make a stupid joke. The irony is that such stupidity means he’ll eventually be caught, tomorrow or the next day, not for gun-smuggling but for unnecessary and thus indefensibly brazen acts of theft. (Many big-time gangsters are, of course, eventually convicted not for murder, extortion or embezzlement, but for tax evasion.)

This is a trait less endearing than plausible, of course, but then characters don’t have to be likeable to be vivid. For the early stages of this twisty but understated film, Thomas – known previously for television roles – lends energies so intriguing that his absence in the latter stages threatens to (but, we should note, doesn’t quite) drag the film down. I hope at any rate to see him stretched by a more central role – and soon.

Michael Pattison