With the exception of Sid and Nancy, Highway Patrolman is cult British filmmaker Alex Cox’s most straightforward drama. These two films stand in contrast to Cox’s many other works, such as Repo Man and Straight to Hell, which are known for their anarchic punk style, nihilism and broad sense of humor. Cox’s comedies (especially Repo Man – his most famous punk manifesto) are only semi-serious about their trenchantly political and fundamentally counter-culture ideas. Highway Patrolman, on the other-hand, is a mostly sober melodrama about the power of individual ethics.
Highway Patrolman, originally titled El Patrullero, follows Pedro Rojas (Roberto Sosa), a young, aspirant Mexican police cadet working for a corrupt institution. Cox doesn’t blame his protagonist for his eventual corruption, but instead points the finger at a deeply broken system. Rojas comes to reject the dogma that he’s taught at the police academy where everyone’s guilty until proven innocent and, as one of his instructors yells at him, “There’s always an infraction!”
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To fully understand Cox’s point of view in Patrolman, it’s worth noting that it was filmed in 1991, four years after he made Walker – a playfully madcap agitprop comedy. In Walker, Cox skewers American support of the Contras by depicting the exploits of the real-life General William Walker (an appropriately deranged Ed Harris). Walker was a fanatic mercenarythat led a small group of American men to Nicaragua in the 19th century and took the title of Nicaraguan President by force. The production of Walker was a hellish experience (see Graham Fuller’s superb “Apocalypse When?” essay for details on the rough time Cox had making the film) and its budget was Cox’s the biggest up until that point.
Walker was released to critical derision and was a commercial failure. As a result, Cox was blacklisted by the Hollywood studios. Four years later, he made Patrolman, a poe-faced allegory about how having a modicum of power can corrupt even someone like Rojas, a meek and obedient grunt. But it would be irresponsibly reductive to confuse Rojas’s predicament as a direct reflection of Cox’s own frustration with being banned from making studio films. Still, it’s interesting that both Rojas and Cox were grappling with the same heady question: what does a disenfranchised individual – one at odds with the system – do once they hit rock bottom?
Cox has said in interviews and in his films (using his characters as his proxies) that narratives claiming to be about ethics and morality are usually corrupt. In Searchers 2.0 he complains about how meaningless revenge tragedies have become. So it’s refreshing to see Rojas having to deal with the consequences of his immoral actions in Patrolman – there’s no easy ride off into the sunset for this hero. I don’t want to give too much away about Patrolman because its main pleasures come from watching the development of Rojas’s character arc. But I will say that while Rojas does all he can to make up for the all the wrongs he’s committed over the course of the film. In Cox’s ethically strict film, two wrongs don’t make a right – there’s never any real escape from the cycle of violence and decadence. So wipe that grin off your face and brace yourself—this one’s going to leave a mark.
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Simon Abrams is a NY-based film, tv and comics critic for various outlets, including the Village Voice, the Onion’s A.V. Club and Wide Screen. He collects his writing on film at Extended Cut.