The Frontier is a blast from the past as far as suspenseful thrillers go, but it’s not an entirely invigorating one. Hitting on a minimalist 70s vibe that’s from a different technological era, filmmaker Oren Shai brushes off a heist story that never really comes together, as we find ourselves stuck in a rickety motel full of overly-suspicious characters. The style wouldn’t be as much of a problem if it were explored with more depth, really digging into the criminal caper on hand, but as it stands, The Frontier feels like a weird stage-play that’s far too separated by vastly different acts. It’s an unfortunate bore, and one that doesn’t beg to hold our attention, which is one of the worst fates a film can suffer.
Jocelin Donahue plays Laine, an independent woman who is fleeing from a death sentence. After stopping in a beat-up motel run by Luanne (Kelly Lynch), she’s offered a job and a place to stay if she so chooses. With nowhere else to go and police heat to avoid, she decides to stick around the joint as a waitress at the attached restaurant. Her motivations aren’t entirely pure though, and during a night of snooping around other people’s rooms, she overhears talk of a money drop going down at the motel. Hungry for a piece, Laine devises a plan that might turn out to be the biggest score of her life – if she can get away with it.
While it might sound like a strange comparison at first, hear me out – The Frontier suffers the same problem that struck Mortdecai down earlier this year. When creating a cinematic journey back to a bygone era, modern-day viewers still have to feel a connection to the film on-hand. Mortdecai found itself stuck in this old-school British gentleman’s club, which us ignorant Americans know nothing about, and even though The Frontier stays in the good ol’ US of A, the atmosphere feels stale, outdated, and without any intrigue. By traveling back in time, Shai digs up a dusty time capsule that’s more just an aesthetic choice instead of a definitive characteristic.
Shai’s drab locations aren’t the only problem with The Frontier, though. As previously mentioned, the “winding” story that unravels isn’t exactly the next great heist tale. Everyone at the motel seems to have a secret, yet none of them are particularly enjoyable. There’s the wig-wearing prettyboy who likes to drink, his airy arm candy, a gruff curmudgeon who fights the inclusion of Laine every step of the way, a showbiz dreamer who never quite got there, and the so-called “rebel.” The group gels on superficial levels, mostly when separated, but when together, the dynamic seems forced, without life, and overly dramatic. Shai plays out each archetype without much grace, and the ‘surprises” never yield any sort of reward. A few artistically framed shots manage to paint a vast picture of the sprawling desert landscape, but beyond these few snapshots, The Frontier looks like a beat-up antique filled with empty personalities.
Then, when the climax finally hits, we’re greeted with a sense of disproportionate retaliation. As you can expect, nothing goes right for Laine’s snooping or the group’s intended payoff, but Shai only offers more questions with each increasingly heightened reaction. Things don’t go as planned, people get angry, and weapons are involved. I won’t divulge any more information than that, but you can connect the dots. The yellow desert sand is splattered with a few pools of blood, but the violence makes us question the larger group’s original dynamic in confusing and frustrating ways. It’s hard to convey what irked me the most, because The Frontier is all about whatever mystery is being established, and I want to leave you readers with an opportunity to formulate your own opinions – if you’re still willing.
The acting itself does The Frontier no favors, as the supporting cast around Donahue finds little success in pushing forward a sense of masked intentions. She carries herself with enough leading charisma to deserve her role, convincingly enacting her own warped intentions, but none of the other customers are colorful enough to drive home their scripted personas. Jim Beaver is stern for the sake of being stern, Liam Aiken seems far too childish, Jamie Harris only has a few worthy lines that promote his lothario appearance, Izabella Miko dizzily bounces about the motel while throwing tantrums, and Lynch gets lost in these contrived stories about how things could have been.
Even the inclusion of A.J. Bowen can’t save The Frontier, an old-school mystery that was made a few decades too late. I give Shai credit for attempting to bridge a generational gap between today’s cinematic crowd and the simplistic charm of yesteryear, but in striving for individuality, The Frontier becomes a generic rehashing of more mundane thrillers. If a grown woman playing cowboys and indians with a boy who appears to be eighteen years of age sounds like enthralling cinema, then you should find those sporadic moments of awkwardness to be highly entertaining. For the rest of us, The Frontier is a mystery without suspense, a conflict without reason, and a film without the proper motivations to drive home the thrills we expect.
The Frontier is a stale film from another era, with an unfortunate story that's about as frail as a tumbleweed.