Review: ‘The Absence of Eden,’ starring Zoe Saldaña, Garrett Hedlund, Adria Arjona and Chris Coy

May 4, 2024

by Carla Hay

Zoe Saldaña and Sophia Hammons in “The Absence of Eden” (Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions)

“The Absence of Eden”

Directed by Marco Perego

Some language in Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in New Mexico and briefly in Mexico, the dramatic film “The Absence of Eden” features a Latin and white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A Hispanic undocumented immigrant and a white American border patrol agent, who are strangers to each other, have various ethical dilemmas before their worlds collide. 

Culture Audience: “The Absence of Eden” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching dramas about the intersections of law enforcement and undocumented immigration in America, but the movie’s story is too muddled and unfocused to have much impact.

Garrett Hedlund and Adria Arjona in “The Absence of Eden” (Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions)

“The Absence of Eden” has an absence of a cohesive plot. This clumsy drama portrays multiple sides of undocumented immigration and law enforcement in the U.S., but the story falls apart in the last dreadful 30 minutes. Some of the movie’s cast members give capable performances, but they are not enough to save this flimsy movie.

Visual artist Marco Perego makes his feature-film directorial debut with “The Absence of Eden,” which was written by Perego and Rick Rapoza. The movie had its world premiere at the 2023 Taormina Film Fest in Italy. “Absence of Eden” does not have a large number of people with speaking roles in its cast, but the movie tries to do too much in a jumbled way, and then tries to rush things along to an ending that is ultimately underwhelming and seems incomplete.

“The Absence of Eden” follow the stories of two main characters over a period of approximately a few months. The first main character is Esmerelda “Esmee” Rojas (played by Zoe Saldaña), an exotic dancer from Mexico. (Saldaña and Perego are married in real life.) The other main character is Shipp (played by Garrett Hedlund), an American border patrol agent for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Esmee is first seen in Mexico at her exotic dancer job at a seedy bar. Esmee is giving a lap dance to a cowboy customer (played by Leonel Garza) in a back room. The customer gets aggressive and tries to force Esmee at gunpoint into doing a sexual act with him. She resists, and in the scuffle that ensues, Esmee grabs the gun and shoots him dead.

In a panic, Esmee decides she’s going to escape by illegally crossing the U.S./Mexico border into New Mexico. (“The Absence of Eden” was filmed on location in New Mexico.) Esmee grabs some cash and calls a secretive group that transports people illegally though U.S. borders. She makes arrangements to get this transportation to the United States. Esmee says goodbye to her grandmother (played by Petra Tovar Sanchez), who gives her personal journal to Esmee as a keepsake.

Esmee and a group of about six to nine undocumented immigrants make the journey by van to New Mexico. Emsee finds out that she has gone from one terrible situation to another. The transportation service is really a human trafficking operation that sells undocumented immigrants into illegal labor to unscrupulous employers. Some of the women and children will be sold into sex trafficking. Esmee has to fight off the sexual advances of the smuggler who’s leading this trip.

Emsee is in the van when she witnesses an unnamed young mother (played by Laura Cruz) get forcibly separated from her daughter Alma (played by Sophia Hammons), who is about 10 or 11 years old. The mother and Alma are understandably distraught and devastated when the mother is taken away to an undisclosed location. Esmee has compassion for Alma and starts taking care of this child while promising she will do everything she can to reunite Alma with Alma’s mother.

Esmee finds out that she is being forced to be a drug mule (someone who smuggles drugs for drug dealers) while she and a few other undocumented immigrant women have been sold into working as maids in a dumpy motel, where they are treated like prisoners under the watchful eyes of security guards at all times. The motel’s undocumented maids also get frequently locked up in rooms when they sleep, so they can’t escape. The motel manager Phil (played by Kevin Owen McDonald) is an elderly creep who seems to be attracted to Esmee.

Meanwhile, Shipp is stoic in his job and in his personal life. He has some “daddy issues” because his retired father was a well-respected ICE agent, and Shipp feels somewhat overshadowed by his father’s admired reputation. Shipp’s father, who does not have a name in the movie, is not seen on screen, but his voice can be heard leaving messages for Shipp, who doesn’t return the messages. (Ted Koch is the voice of Shipp’s father.)

Shipp is a bachelor who lives alone. His love life starts to heat up when he meets Yadira (played by Adria Arjona) at a bar. They hook up immediately in the back seat of his car. Yadira tells Shipp during their first encounter that she works as an elementary schoolteacher and she’s a single mother to a son named Gabriel (played by Chrysovalentis Martinez), who is 11 years old. Yadira lives with Gabriel and her grandmother Maria (played by Teresa Cepada Rodriguez) in a modest home.

Shipp works with a racist ICE border patrol agent named Dobbins (played by Chris Coy), who takes pleasure in being violently brutal to many of the undocumented Hispanic immigrants whom he detains. Shipp witnesses this brutality when he’s working with Dobbins. Shipp only stops the brutality if it looks like the victim might need to be taken to a hospital if Dobbins continues the assault.

Shipp keeps his personal life separate from his work life. However, one day at work, Dobbins convinces Shipp to bring Yadira on a double date for dinner at a restaurant with Dobbins and a woman named Rebecca (played by Sarah Minnich), whom Dobbins has recently begun dating. Dobbins doesn’t find out that Yadira is Hispanic until this double date.

“The Absence of Eden” wanders for long stretches that don’t do much to further the story. What about Alma and her missing mother? That storyline is mostly forgotten. Much of “The Absence of Eden” shows various incidents that happen in the lives of Shipp and Esmee. Shipp is usually emotionally closed-off, but he begins up to open up to Yadira. The couple’s relationship becomes more serious when they declare their love for each other. However, in a movie like “The Absence of Eden,” a love affair like this will not go smoothly.

Saldaña and Hedlund have moments of portraying Emee and Shipp convincingly. The problem is that “The Absence of Eden” screenplay depicts these two main characters as mostly stereotypes. By the end of the movie, viewers will learn almost nothing about Esmee except that she’s an outlaw for killing a man in self-defense, and she decided to take care of Alma, who is not seen for most of the movie. Yadira is an interesting but underdeveloped character that limits Arjona’s nuanced performance. The rest of the movie’s cast members are serviceable and not outstanding in their roles.

The storylines of Esmee and Shipp converge in a very predictable and awkward way. Esmee has a preachy monologue near the end of the movie that is absolutely cringeworthy because it sounds “only in a movie” phony. The direction of “The Absence of Eden” tries to be gritty and artsy at the same time, but it just doesn’t work for this unfocused story. “The Absence of Eden” seems to want to make a big statement about the exploitation and brutality that undocumented immigrants can experience in America. However, that statement rings hollow when “The Absence of Eden” refuses to show or tell anything meaningful about the movie’s main undocumented immigrant and who she really is as a person.

Roadside Attractions and Vertical released “The Absence of Eden” in select U.S. cinemas on April 12, 2024.

Review: ‘The Killing of Two Lovers,’ starring Clayne Crawford, Sepideh Moafi, Chris Coy and Avery Pizzuto

May 22, 2021

by Carla Hay

Avery Pizzuto and Clayne Crawford in “The Killing of Two Lovers” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“The Killing of Two Lovers”

Directed by Robert Machoian

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city the dramatic film “The Killing of Two Lovers” features an all-white cast of characters representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: A married father, who is in a trial separation from his wife, experiences problems when his wife begins dating another man.

Culture Audience: “The Killing of Two Lovers” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching a mostly slow-paced but well-acted story about marriage and family problems.

Sepideh Moafi and Clayne Crawford in “The Killing of Two Lovers” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

The title of “The Killing of Two Lovers” suggests that there’s going to be a murder in the story and that maybe the movie is a thriller. People looking for a murder mystery will be disappointed because it’s not that kind of movie. Instead, the film is a slow-burn character study of a married father who’s separated from his wife and wants to get back together with her, but those plans have been thwarted because she’s dating someone new.

What happens during this love triangle builds up to a big climactic moment that is the standout scene in the film. But since it takes so long to get there, there’s a simmering tension that can be felt underneath the surface at all times. It’s entirely realistic, but it might bore some viewers who might expect the movie to take a more predictable route of family melodramatics that involve married parents who could be on the verge of divorce.

Written and directed by Robert Machoian, “The Killing of Two Lovers” begins with spouses David (played by Clayne Crawford) and Niki (played by Sepideh Moafi) already separated for an unnamed period of time, but it’s implied that it’s been less than a year since they stopped living together. Niki still lives in the marital home, while David now lives with his bedridden, widowed father (played by Bruce Graham), who has respiratory problems and doesn’t have a name in the movie. Based on what David says later in the movie, David and Niki were sweethearts in high school, she got pregnant, they got married soon after graduating from high school, and more recently they began to drift apart.

David and Niki are trying to figure out the future of their relationship while sharing custody of their four children: daughter Jesse (played by Avery Pizzuto) is about 15 or 16 years old; son Alex (played by Arri Graham) is about 10 or 11 years old; son Theo (played by Ezra Graham) is about 7 or 8 years old; and son Bug (played by Jonah Graham) is about 4 or 5 years old. They all live in an unnamed U.S. city, which is in a somewhat rural area that snows. The story is told from David’s point of view.

It’s mentioned later in the movie that David really didn’t want the separation and that it was Niki who asked him to move out of their family home. David still loves Niki and has been trying to get back together with her, but there’s a big problem with that plan: Niki has started dating a man named Derek (played by Chris Coy), and this new relationship might be getting serious. David and Niki had agreed during their separation that they could date other people, but it still hurts David to think that another man could be raising the kids as a possible stepfather.

How much does it bother David that Niki has found a new man? In the film’s striking opening scene, David has snuck back into the house and is pointing a loaded gun at Niki and Derek, who are sound asleep in the bed that David used to share with Niki. David ends up not pulling the trigger, and he quietly sneaks out a house window before anyone sees him. If Niki and Derek had woken up when David was pointing a gun at them, they would’ve seen the deranged and angry look on his face.

It’s the first major hint that David could be emotionally unraveling and might do something extreme or violent. The rest of the story keeps viewers guessing over how far David will go to get back in Niki’s life and get the family back together again. But sometimes, it’s a monotonous journey to get to the point when it’s revealed what will happen to David and his family. The “killing” in the movie’s title could also be a metaphor for the death of a romance and how it affects the couple who used to be happy together.

A great deal of “The Killing of Two Lovers” shows the mundane routines of David’s everyday life, as he tries to adjust to this marital separation. He goes to a local convenience store, where he is friendly with some local townspeople. But when David happens to see Derek there, they silently glare at each other. Derek and his personality remain a mystery until a pivotal point in the movie.

It’s not clear if David has had a career in anything. For now, he seems to be doing odd jobs around the area. A middle-aged widow named Mrs. Staples (played by Barbara Whinnery) hires David to remove large tree branches from her property. As they discuss the fee that she will pay him and how long it will take him to complete the job ($100 a day over a two-week period), David asks Mrs. Staples if she had a good marriage to her late husband Tom.

Mrs. Staples candidly replies that her marriage had a lot of problems. And she says of long-term love relationships: “Love is a feeling. And feelings, they move in, they move out. You and Niki will work it out.”

But will they? When Niki sees David, she hugs him and tells him that she loves him, but she remains vague about her future plans with Derek. She’s also not ready to give David a timetable on when she’ll decide to get back together with him or file for divorce. It’s a limbo that’s making David upset and anxious, but he tries to be a dedicated and loving father to his and Niki’s children.

However, David clashes with Niki over some parenting issues. She gets angry when she finds out that David secretly visited their three sons at 2:30 in the morning at the family home. And both parents are frustrated over how to deal with their teenage daughter Jesse, who is starting to rebel because of David and Niki’s separation. Jesse has been skipping school and wanting to spend less time at home.

Jesse is taking the separation hardest out of all the children. One day, David sees Jesse walking down the road, when she should be in school. He stops his truck and chases after her. She tries to run away, but he catches up to her. While David drives Jesse to school, Jesse’s pent-up resentment comes out in an explosive argument.

Jesse makes it clear that she hates that Niki is dating another man. “Mom’s cheating on you,” she tells David. David replies diplomatically, “No, she’s not. We agreed that we could see other people at this time … I’m not going to make your mom out to be the villan in this thing.” Jesse shouts, “Dad, you need to fight for us!”

On another day, Jesse’s anger comes out again when David has taken her and the three boys to a park during his designated visitation time. David has planned for them to play with toy rockets at the park, but Jesse is bored and frustrated. Instead of participating in this activity, she kicks one of the rockets and insists on being taken back home. When they get back to the family home, something happens that determines the fate of this love triangle that’s been causing much of the turmoil in this family.

All of the actors give emotionally authentic performances, but this movie is mostly a showcase for Crawford’s versatile acting skills. And he delivers in a few scenes that pack a visceral punch. There’s nothing remarkable about the technical production of “The Killing of Two Lovers,” but its biggest strength is in how the actors skillfully portray the angst of people trying to hold their lives together when their relationships are falling apart.

Neon released “The Killing of Two Lovers” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on May 14, 2021.

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