In the wake of the recent ATF gun-walking scandal, Gabriel Ripstein’s 600 Miles offers an understated look at Latin American gun smuggling and essentially provides viewers with a contemplative road movie, in an attempt to broach the complexity of its subject. Despite this film being littered with guns – few are ever fired and Ripstein interestingly eschews the ultra-violence and gun-toting mayhem that has become synonymous with this topic (Amat Escalante’s stomach-turning Heli springs to mind), and instead adopts a far more nuanced portrait of the situation south of the border.

Kristyan Ferrer plays Arnulfo Rubio, a fresh-faced wannabe gangster who, along with Carson, (Harrison Thomas) a similarly wayward teen, smuggles weapons from Arizona to Mexico for a cartel gang.  We see the two gunrunners travelling from sports stores to gun shows in the film’s opening sequences taking full advantage of America’s lax gun laws and nonchalantly purchasing assault weapons with ease. ‘Hunting or self-defence?’ is the question posed by one cashier, to which Carson’s ominous reply is ‘hunting’ as he clutches an AR-15 machine gun. However, it is soon revealed that Arnulfo and his partner are in fact the ones being hunted by prowling FDA operative Hank Harris (Tim Roth), who is documenting the serial numbers of the guns being purchased. Despite the severity of their task, Arnulfo and Carson are shown occasionally rough-housing and playing with the weapons which, although offers some respite to the criminal activity that is unfurling, ultimately highlights how out of depth these two young gun-traffickers are.

Hank eventually apprehends the two boys but in a sudden turn of events winds up bound and beaten in Arnulfo’s van with Carson nowhere to be seen. Arnulfo sees no choice but to continue to his destination as the two are hermetically sealed in the nondescript SUV and forced to interact with one another as they travel further south, a dynamic similarly explored in David Michod’s The Rover. However, Ripstein brilliantly imbues these long scenes with a sense of something growling beneath the surface and as Roth’s character gradually reveals his troubled past, Arnulfo’s insouciance and hard-man persona soon fades, revealing a frightened and confused young man brilliantly rendered by Ferrer.

Ripstein and his DP Alain Marcoen, adopt a sort of quasi-documentary approach when capturing the action, lingering on objects and characters for extended periods of time, sometimes from a discreet distance, sometimes up close and personal. The camera is often placed where its line of sight is partially obscured, creating a heightened sense of realism especially when gun shots are often heard off-screen forcing the viewer to compensate for a lack of visual information.

Although some scenes feel out of place and only appear as clumsy attempts to inject the film with more pace, ultimately this subtle true-to-life portrayal is a tense and hugely enjoyable thriller and despite the lack of muzzle flashes – this is still a film with plenty of kick back.