Proof that certain Hollywood tendencies aren't unique to Hollywood at all, the fine director of the perhaps overly-rewarded The Crime of Father Amaro has come out with his first feature in seven years, and it too is a fine thing. Indeed, the only thing that keeps Backyard from transcending "fine" and turning into "pretty good, hell, pretty great" is that it has a massively swollen sense of its own Incredible Significance and Importance in Exploring and Condemning the Great Problems of Our Times. It's a message movie, to call it by its right name, and the message here is: "It is terrible that so many women are raped and murdered in Ciudad Juárez, and more terrible still that more than a decade after that fact became the national shame of Mexico, nobody has done much to address the problem".

This has the advantage of being a message that it is virtually impossible to disagree with, which is both good and bad for Backyard: good, because when the year-end lists and awards come out, it is exactly the kind of noble-minded work that Serious Critics and trophy-granting bodies cling to like flies on shit (it's Mexico's official submission for the Foreign Film Oscar, and from where I stand, it's almost unimaginable that it won't get a nomination); bad, because by virtue of having such an unimpeachable sensible and righteous moral underpinning their movie, director Carlos Carrera and writer Sabina Berman seem to have concluded that it's just perfectly fine to go ahead and coast by without actually doing anything to make the movie, actually, y'know, interesting.

Harsh! Unduly harsh! I liked Backyard. I really liked the performance by Ana de la Reguera in the lead, as the woman police officer thrown headlong into the institutional sexism of the corrupt Juárez police force; she managed to give depth and reality and passion to a cardboard character (I must give the filmmakers credit: she's not a stock saint, but actually gets to be a little bit nasty in her pursuit of justice). I like the cinematography by Martín Boege, a name wholly new to me; he captures the grimy, sandy look of that city (one of a very small number of places in Mexico I've actually seen with my own eyes) without feeling the need to rip-off Traffic, like you sometimes see done.

But you can like all of those things without loving any of them, and there's the greater reality that Backyard doesn't tell a particularly compelling story; oh, it's sure a compelling scenario, as Carrera and Berman know full well. But the actual narrative of the film is kind of hard to pin down, and not really worth the effort. There's some political corruption here, business pressure there, and mysterious discoveries here and here. And a subplot about a country girl (Amorita Rasgado) who comes to Juárez and finds it a more exciting and much less safe place than she'd imagined, though well-executed and supremely well-performed, can never quite overcome its barbarically functional origins: we apparently need to have the story of a particular girl who gets brutally fucked over by the Way Things Are in Juárez, because just hearing about rape and murder isn't enough: we have to like a specific rape and murder victim. And the fact that it's patently obvious the story must end in her rape and murder a good 90 minutes before she is either raped or murdered gives the whole thing a nice veneer of miserabilism.

It's not a bad movie, by all means. But there's just something about this self-conscious Message Picture bullshit that gets my hackles up. I'd love to find Backyard moving, but it's just so damned calculated!