SXSW REVIEW: The Frontier

In his photograph on IMDb, director Oren Shai intently reads a vintage pulp paperback called “The Losers.” On the cover of the book, a 1950’s-looking man in jeans and a sleeveless undershirt holds a beautiful woman in a long red evening gown close to his chest. I think Shai has a fondness for the genre and he tries to bring it to life in his first feature film, The Frontier. Notice I wrote “tries.” I’m not necessarily a fan of the genre, but I enjoy good movies of any kind. Unfortunately, I did not enjoy this one.

The Frontier, a dusty diner/motel somewhere in the desert near Flagstaff, Arizona, is the hub for a group of greedy characters all wanting to get their hands on the spoils from a huge robbery. A lovely young woman named Laine (Jocelin Donahue) stumbles into the situation; however, she’s on the run herself. For no particular reason that I can tell, other than her being as greedy as the rest of them, she decides she can intervene and take all the money herself. Overhearing the details of the big delivery, she accepts a job at the diner and hatches her plan.

This isn’t a bad setup. However, I think a couple of factors work against it. Primarily, 99% of the movie takes place at The Frontier itself. This causes the drama to rely on the characters and the dialog to create suspense, because there is precious little action. The problem with this is that the characters are more like caricatures and I didn’t know if I was supposed to be laugh with them or at them. Donahue is very good in her role, but the others are not. That’s part of the disconnect. How seriously is this all to be taken?

When the “action” does leave The Frontier near the end, it’s via a car obviously filmed on a set, not actually driving down a bumpy road. We then see the bloody aftermath of. By this time I was struggling to maintain interest. I don’t think I missed anything, but I was left very unclear about the relationships of the people and who did what do whom. Ultimately, I longed for a twist that never came to add something interesting into the story. It doesn’t help that there’s no one to cheer for; every character is a despicable as the other. Which I guess in itself is unique.

I’ve been very careful here not to say The Frontier is a “bad” movie. It very well could be that everything turned out as Shai (and co-writer Webb Wilcoxen) intended. If you’re a fan of the genre, perhaps this is a loving tribute to it and you will appreciate the effort, but I’m not. I would have enjoyed it more with better acting, more character development and some real action. Instead of the suspenseful thriller I was sold, I found a talky, repetitive drama as quiet and isolated as its setting.

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