There’s definitely something refreshing about seeing a full-blown retro crime thriller, but Oren Shai’s feature directorial debut is reduced to a mere novelty because there’s so little access to the main characters.
The Frontier centers on a young woman named Laine (Jocelin Donahue). When we first meet her, she’s trying to light up a cigarette with a pair of extremely bloody hands, but then we cut to, or rather, very slowly transition to a much cleaner Laine sleeping on the side of the road in her car. When a local motel owner finds her and offers her a job, Laine isn’t interested until she discovers that some of the woman’s other tenants are in the midst of carrying out a $2 million heist, and she wants in.
As we learned in The House of the Devil, Donahue’s got an especially captivating on-screen presence so even though Shai’s slow-pan, long-shot format can take some getting used to, Donahue pulls you in quickly enough to almost immediately spark interest in her character’s situation. It’s very clear that Laine’s running away from something, but Donahue and Shai strike a nice balance between highlighting her innocence and teasing a little darkness in the character, and it’s a combination that keeps you guessing as Laine explores the motel and tries to figure out her next play. However, once all the details are revealed, it’s a bit of a dead-end scenario. There’s a big difference between genuinely being invested in the characters and just being curious to see what happens to them.
And that’s a big issue for every single one of The Frontier’s main players. In addition to Laine there’s also Luanne (Kelly Lynch), the owner of the motel, Flynn (Jamie Harris) and Gloria (Izabella Miko), the two involved in the heist, Gloria’s younger brother Eddie (Liam Aiken) and an especially grumpy guy that sits in the restaurant most of the day named Lee (Jim Beaver). The group definitely has chemistry and can hold your attention, but again, it’s more of a curiosity to see how their situation pans out rather than caring about the well-being of the characters.
I’m all for movies that leave things to the audience’s imagination, but Shai never reveals exactly why any of the characters are willing to go to such an extreme to get money and when you don’t know what’s driving them, there’s really no reason to root for them to get it. Laine does her fair share of lying and manipulating, so it’s never totally clear whether the details she shares about her past are accurate or not, and that essentially leaves us with zero backstory on the character.
The same goes for Flynn and Gloria. Everyone in the world wants money so what makes their eagerness to snag $2 million any different? As presented in the film, nothing. But at least Flynn and Gloria have a charming warmth to them. Lee’s just a big jerk from start to finish, we don’t learn anything about where he comes from or why he’s part of the whole situation to begin with, and this proves to be especially problematic in the third act of the film. No, you don’t want to explain away every little detail of a movie, but when you’ve got characters doing risky, violent and life-changing things, you need to understand why they’re making those decisions.
There’s also some essential information that’s missing regarding the heist. It’s unclear who actually carried out the heist and how Gloria, Flynn and others got involved. As presented in the film, it seems as though the money just landed in their laps. If that’s really the case, perhaps the movie’s better off without those details, but if the characters were physically there for the heist or participated in some sort of dangerous negotiating to weasel their way into getting the money, merely hearing that information could certainly have strengthened their current situation.
Shai was definitely on the cusp of delivering a unique edge-of-your seat crime thriller. He makes the lengthy shots and non-stop super slow camera movements work, he nails the 1970s vibe and has an ensemble that brings the most out of their characters, but ultimately, The Frontier is a hollow watch because there’s no one to care about and there’s really nothing to take away from the experience either.
Click here for all of our SXSW 2015 coverage or browse the links below to check out my other reviews:
- Ava’s Possessions
- Get Hard
- Ex Machina
- Excess Flesh
- The Final Girls
- Furious 7
- Night Owls