Writer/director Marco Perego is aware that there is a layered conversation that often lacks empathy towards those affected in his directorial debut, ‘The Absence of Eden.’ He consciously decides to present the film from two perspectives that will naturally find ways to intertwine. At the center, there’s Texas, a contentious hotbed of the United States/Mexico border policy and disputes. On one side, an ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) agent, Shipp (Garrett Hedlund), is completing his training and seemingly looking for a way to escape his past. His flip phone receives constant calls from his dying father that he has no interest in answering. Those motivations aren’t fully revealed, but there’s a slight indication that it’s tied to Shipp’s line of work and how he’ll go about his temperament. In Mexico, Esmeralda “Esme” (Zoë Saldaña) is a private dancer trying to make a living to help her abuela when a member of the Cartel threatens her at gunpoint. In an act of self-defense, Esme accidentally shoots and kills him. At that point, it’s essential that she gets out of the country and flee to the U.S. for safety. Thus, Esme leaves on a perilous journey to do so. There exist threats of retaliation from the Cartel, physical violence, sexual assault, and overall mistreatment that she and other women experience in trying to make this trek. 

“Yes, ‘The Absence of Eden’ makes its points, but it often lingers on them too long to make a lasting impact other than initial feelings.”

Perego and co-writer Rick Rapoza present healthy strife from physical, mental, and philosophical differences. Some of these elements work better with one main character than the other. For Saldaña, she can channel a certain amount of despair and a small amount of hopefulness in her role as Esme. With what she has to go through, Esme’s character is the definite emotional heart of ‘The Absence of Eden’. Saldaña’s ability to display feelings through body language and the story’s flavor of Esme’s culture gives this narrative something to work with. Upon her travels, Esme tries to project a little girl after she is taken by coyotes that sell her mother off. This leads her into the gateway into America, where she has to work in a rundown hotel as a maid and also someone who is a go-between for drugs. The metaphor is clear, but how does it feel when you are in a place where you’re supposed to be free with limits placed upon you? It’s the most important question Eden poses to the audience to ponder.

Meanwhile, Shipp’s veteran partner Evans (Chris Coy) doesn’t operate in a nuanced manner concerning ICE’s role in deportations. Evans often frames things throughout the film in an “us vs. them” mentality. This clashes with Shipp as he falls for Yadira (Adria Arjona), an undocumented woman who has lived in Texas for a while with her pre-teen son. As they grow closer, Shipp will have to decide between what his job asks for him and following his heart. Separately, these narratives are somewhat compelling, albeit doing enough to warrant this story. Javier Juliá’s camera style often paints an intimate portrait of what these narratives mean inside each person. ‘The Absence of Eden’ is drawing much-needed attention to the abuse of Mexican women trying to flee violence and to those undocumented existing in the in-between within how the world looks at them. Where the story falters is trying to conjoin them together into something in search of being more profound than it is. Yes, ‘The Absence of Eden’ makes its points, but it often lingers on them too long to make a lasting impact other than initial feelings. There are deeper issues that require more digging, and the film shines a light on them, but the pull of roping things together doesn’t allow it to invest in making needed statements definitively.

Main Photo Credit: Vertical Entertainment