Studio: Kino Lorber
Director: Oren Shai
Writer: Webb Wilcoxen, Oren Shai
Producer: Dana Lustig
Stars: Jocelin Donahue, Izabella Miko, Jamie Harris, AJ Bowen, Liam Aiken, Jim Beaver, Kelly Lynch
A woman on the run crosses paths with a mysterious mix of people hiding their own secrets at a roadside diner in the desert.
On the run from the law, Laine’s bloody hands and an engraved money clip are the only clues to the crime she just committed. Fatigue setting in and her clunker car coasting toward kaput, Laine stops at The Frontier, the kind of crime movie greasy spoon that collects shifty drifters, distrustful drinkers, and mystery men like the desert road outside collects dust.
The Frontier is run by Luanne. George Raft would have called Luanne ‘doll.’ Humphrey Bogart might have said ‘dame.’
Whatever forced a former Hollywood showgirl into ownership of a dingy diner and adjacent motel, Luanne sees Laine falling along a familiar path. Laine’s improvised story of escaping a battering boyfriend earns Luanne’s sympathy, as well as an offer to continue flying under the radar as The Frontier’s waitress.
Laine is more interested in quickly burgling the new motel guests, a dapper duo of mustached Englishman and materialistic arm candy, and getting back on the road in the dead of night. But when she puts together that Luanne, the couple, and a gruff man eyeing her suspiciously over his coffee are part of a heist crew patiently awaiting their payout, Laine concocts a plot to carve her own slice from their pie. If she can also keep the bad penny local lawman from persistently sniffing about, Laine might give the others more than enough run for their money to see who comes out as the craftiest criminal at The Frontier.
Imagine the pre-shower Marion Crane scenes of “Psycho” tinged with a touch of Tarantino pulp and you’re halfway to picturing the neo-noir story and style of “The Frontier.” Oren Shai’s directorial debut is an exercise in executing a throwback thriller with a modern eye for detail and ear for dialogue evoking tones more common to black-and-white films starring fedora-sporting men and radiantly glowing women.
Between its fiction and its flair, “The Frontier” exists in a middle ground of 1940s film noir and 1960s cinema chic. Production design hits all the necessary notes to achieve such amalgamated atmosphere, yet does so with remarkable restraint careful to not oversaturate the setting. Artificial elements like digitally-added film grain or exaggerated outfitting aren’t bloodying noses with retro mood. “The Frontier” simply drops the viewer into a casually crafted period piece whose feeling comes from characterization, not cinematic circus tricks.
If you didn’t know co-scripter Webb Wilcoxen was also a playwright, you could guess it from the way “The Frontier” is staged. Most of the movie takes place inside the single setting or just outside. Scattered driving sequences are filmed with process trailers or nighttime backgrounds so black, they could be done on a soundstage, and possibly were. This approach is a double-edged sword in that it contributes to the film’s unique texture, yet the stage play aesthetic puts stiffness into scenes in need of more sizzle.
“The Frontier” is an actor’s movie, the sort of project performers ache to sink teeth into because similar roles are few and far between. Reunited from their previous period outing in Ti West’s “House of the Devil,” Jocelin Donahue and AJ Bowen, along with standouts Jim Beaver and Kelly Lynch, portray their personalities through the shapes of their mouths and looks in their eyes. These are people telling their collective story not through words, but by body language and camera movements.
When “The Frontier” does speak, it sometimes trips over what it says. Every one of the seven main characters is given a private spotlight to shine whether they need it or not. Kelly Lynch nails a maudlin monologue about her broken dream background, for instance. But its shoehorned inclusion late in the movie makes it more of a momentum killer than a story-mandated necessity. If “The Frontier” weaved more intense intrigue that made better use of these individual portraits, its crime drama would crackle instead of simmer steadily.
“The Frontier’s” occasionally paused plot progression prevents it from climbing all the way up a mighty Raymond Chandler hill. But there are not enough artists in modern moviemaking going out on the limbs risked here. Few first-time features are as assured as Oren Shai’s. Conventions are bucked with confidence, even when the outcome isn’t fully satisfying as entertainment. That notion alone makes “The Frontier” an interesting project to ponder, and Shai a compelling creator to keep two eyes on.
Review Score: 65