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The movies are full of bad people in bad situations. Some get there by circumstance, some are born that way, some have no choice. What we no for sure though is that be it big city or sleepy desert hamlet, there’s no place where bad people don’t find a home in the shadows. With The Frontier, a sort of midwestern film-noir set in the 1970s, most everyone is a darker shade of grey and there’s not a one to be trusted in this throwback that feels like it’d be a lot more at home on a drive-in screen billed as part of a cheesy double-feature.
The opening shot of The Frontier is certainly compelling enough. A young beautiful brunette, who we will soon learn is named Laine (Jocelin Donahue), shakily takes a drag off a cigarette, her fingers smeared in someone else’s blood. We don’t know what has happened or even when. She is next seen sleeping in a parked car blocking the entrance to a dusty old diner and motel. The owner knocks on the window and brings the girl in. She is Luanne (Kelly Lynch), and she senses there’s some dark history with Laine and offers the girl a room to crash and then a job behind the counter. The two seem to share a common ache, or at least a past life.
The isolated oasis they are in is called The Frontier and it has a few other colorful characters who all seem as if connected, and indeed, are. Laine overhears a conversation between two other guests who are waiting for their cut of a big robbery, and so we realize that these players are all a little on the dangerous side. Laine is no saint herself, and in one confrontation, confesses that she’s actually on the run for murder, having offed a man she claims tried to attack her. Now she has a plan to add a bit more to that charge and sets about lulling the others into her own personal trap.
Written and directed by Oren Shai, in his feature film debut, The Frontier has a sharp start and a promising premise but suffers a bit from a few paper thin characters and a couple of weak moments in the script, but like one of those frustratingly addictive magic-eye posters, you can’t help but keep watching, waiting for the real image to appear. The double-cross is a tried-and-true conceit in movies and as such, all the people in this story are all walking a razor sharp edge, though I wish they had a bit more to say. Still, the tight confines of the diner and the sheer ballsy commitment to the premise is to be admired. Shai creates some solid tension and a nice tone, with a real Z-grade movie look and feel, though it could and should have gone a lot more darker.
Donahue, whom you might recognize from 2013’s Insidious: Chapter 2, holds her own and shows she can carry a film, bringing a certain mystery to Laine that keeps her fun to watch. Wheyfaced and perpetually doe-eyed, she is a dagger hiding in lace, her plain, comely expression a fool’s trap. Lynch is equally strong playing a faded has-been. She has a kind of off-kilter edge that is the sharpest part of the film and has the movie’s single best moment of vulnerability that only serves to remind the viewer of how much stronger it all could have been given more moments like it. The others all do well, though all are little undercooked.
But again, what makes this work is its lust for the past. Shai refuses to play by the rules and while we watch with expectation for what modern movies have trained us to want, namely fast-paced action, we instead are witness to a film that revels in its stillness. A sequence in a car along a darkened dusty road is an exercise in simplicity, utterly void of manipulation by musical cues or camera tricks, and while in the hands of the right director, these elements can be magical, here, it is somehow transcendent in its frankness. To appreciate the obvious love Shai must have for the Z-grade melodramas of the 50, 60s, and 70s, is to soak this in and then gawk in wonder at the almost dare-you-to-look-away moment of Lynch and Donahue in a car that last a breathlessly long time without a single line of dialogue. Is it itself Z-grade filmmaking or mad genius?
Shai introduces a few curious themes that could have have far more impact, sure, and I would have liked to have more depth to a few of the players, but if you’re looking to try something that is off the beaten path, this will give you plenty to talk about.
Movie description: The Frontier is a 2016 crime thriller about a young woman on the run who thinks she's found a place to hide but finds more trouble than she left behind.
Director(s): Oren Shai
Actor(s): Jocelin Donahue, Kelly Lynch, Jim Beaver
Genre: Crime, Thriller