Fantastic Review: Undocumented

By  · Published on October 7th, 2010

A group of documentary filmmakers decide to shine a spotlight on the plight of illegal immigrants living in the United States. Their efforts bear fruit when they are given clearance to accompany an immigrant smuggler through one of his secret tunnels. It is there that the filmmakers get an unexpected, first-hand lesson on just how scary being an undocumented immigrant can be. They are kidnapped, along with a slew of migrants, by a sadistic organization of warped patriots who are hell-bent on punishing anyone who would dare take shortcuts to achieving the American dream. Forced to keep the cameras rolling, this film crew finds themselves suddenly making snuff instead of a documentary.

At a glance, Undocumented seems yet another forgettable ripple in the tide of found-footage horror. And honestly, a hearty chunk of this film does fall tediously under that banner. There is, in fact, a camera crew comprising the film’s central cast and much of the cinematography is limited to the shaky, unsteady lens of a hand-held camera. But despite its faults, Undocumented is a solid horror film that takes as many potshots at cinema veriteé horror as it does adhere to its conventions.

While it is shot and formatted like any other found-footage horror film, Undocumented has two variations that ultimately amount to concessions of fictionalization. The first would be its utilizing of recognizable actors. If Undocumented truly wanted you to believe that this was legitimate found footage and not a scripted film, they would not have opened with a shot of veteran character actor Kevin Weisman. In other words, the fact that anyone who watched Alias would be able to recognize him as a professional actor negates any supposition of a ruse on part of the film. If that is too esoteric to register as evidence, how about the fact that the principal antagonist is played by Peter Stormare? This is an actor so recognizable, so distinctive, that the moment you hear his voice from under a shroud you know who it is and once again are assured that this film is not trying to pull any figurative wool over anyone’s eyes.

The other deviation from standard found footage horror displayed in Undocumented is, in fact, a pointed jab at the subgenre. When you watch a film like Cloverfield, REC, or The Last Exorcism, you will no doubt find yourself frustrated with the counter-intuitive behavior of the cameraman character. No matter what altruistic drive or mastodonic cajones one may claim to have, if in the shoes of that character one would eventually put down the camera and allow self-preservation to take over. In what may be the biggest counterpoint to its realism, the characters in these aforementioned films never see the need to drop the camera and run. Undocumented features a similar point-of-no-return moment and makes the bold choice to not only put down the camera, but shift gears into a traditional narrative as an acknowledgment of this vertieé paradox. The effect is quite unique and again speaks to the films apathy in regard to convincing you that it is genuine.

This may seem a microscopic review of the Undocumented, but it’s the aspect of the film that is most interesting. The performances are capable, but not great. The set pieces are adequate, if a bit lacking. And while it does wear its agenda on its sleeve, the message of the film is less political as it is a sociological indictment. To that end I do appreciate that for all its in-your-face jingoism, the villains are ultimately no more preachy than Jigsaw; the wholesale appropriating of Saw’s use of ironic traps notwithstanding. This is not a terrific film, but it is well-constructed and has a definite point to make. The only moment in which I feel it truly falters is its ham-fisted stinger of an ending. Beyond that, Undocumented is an entertaining, cross-cultural bloodbath.

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.