The suspenseful thrillers of the 1970s are a very different breed than those that are released nowadays. The year that a film is released certainly has a lot to do with the content, as society greatly influences movies, and vice versa. Writer/director Oren Shai and co-writer Webb Wilcoxen have a clear interest in retro thrillers, as they have a sense of storytelling that feels as if it came right out of the 70s. Many elements found in Shai and Wilcoxen's feature debut will undoubtedly be compared to Quentin Tarantino's style in Reservoir Dogs. The Frontier has a lot going for it, but it ultimately lacks an important piece of the puzzle.
A young and mysterious woman named Laine (Jocelin Donahue) is on the run from the law. When she comes upon The Frontier, an isolated desert motel, she's offered a job by owner Luanne (Kelly Lynch). Hoping to disappear from her life, she accepts it, but soon realizes that she has stumbled into a much bigger and more dangerous situation than she ever could have imagined.
Most modern thrillers would take place over the span of a city, or perhaps even in a few states across the country. However, The Frontier takes place almost entirely at the desert diner and motel. However, there are a lot of players that prove to be involved in the treacherous situation that Laine has stumbled upon. Much like the people that she ultimately meets, Laine is extremely mysterious. While the film is told from her perspective, the audience is never truly let in on her secrets. We know that she's running from the law and she has some pretty gnarly bruises. By keeping the viewers in the dark, we're given a cinematic experience where we're left constantly guessing her true intentions. We're ultimately left questioning whether the supposed protagonist is really as innocent as she claims, or if she's actually the culprit of the strange situation that we're watching unfold.
The Frontier has a lot of good things going for it, but Shai and Wilcoxen's screenplay simply isn't very consistent. There's almost no character disposition, making it nearly impossible to sympathize with any of the characters. There's an incredibly personal moment had with Luanne, where she discusses a past that almost seems like it belongs to her in another life. This is a powerful moment that never occurs with any of the other characters. Mystery is good up to a certain point, and then it becomes too vague. Money becomes a huge motivator for everybody involved, although no other reason is provided for why characters act the way that they do. As the stakes continue to escalate, money no longer works as a convincing motivator. Laine eavesdrops on a few of the players within the motel and diner in order to discover more about the operation that is being carried out. When the alcohol starts flowing, a couple of them begin playing Cowboys and Indians, which is clear symbolism for the cash-hungry players that are willing to conquer anything in order to obtain what they believe has been earned.
The theme of deception runs deep in this story. Even though we aren't necessarily informed of their pasts, we know that they have dealt in a great deal of manipulation in order to get to where they currently are. Everybody claims innocence, but there's a lot more to these characters than meets the eye. The audience just never gets to see any of them become entirely realized. The Frontier includes a lot of small details in both the narrative and the characters, but these feel like missed opportunities. Why include such pieces of information when the film simply forgets that these elements ever existed? Regardless of whether this is intentional or not, it suggests a messy narrative that doesn't feel very cohesive. Even so, The Frontier is always entertaining, as it keeps its audiences engaged from start to finish.
There are certainly a few recognizable faces to be found in this retro crime thriller. Jocelin Donahue delivers a relatively impressive performance as Laine. She has a screen presence that radiates off of the screen in this mysterious role. She adds a sense of depth to this role that is rather convincing. Kelly Lynch turns in a particularly stunning portrayal as Luanne, especially during the final act when she informs the other players of her past. This is such a genuine monologue that truly manipulates our emotions. Jim Beaver has always been enjoyable on screen, although he comes off a bit flat as Lee. Perhaps some of this has to do with the material that he has been given, but it feels like more could have been done with this role. AJ Bowen turns in another entertaining performance as Officer Gault. I always look forward to his appearances, as he constantly contributes a certain charisma that feels unparalleled. Having starred in The House of the Devil with Donahue, it should come as no surprise that the two work well together in the few scenes that they share with one another.
Despite this being Oren Shai's directorial debut, he absolutely nails the throwback style that he aimed to achieve. It feels like you're watching a film from the 1970s, which perfectly fits the atmosphere. A layer of grain remains over the picture through certain segments, allowing for an interesting presentation. The production design in particular deserves praise for its high attention to detail. Shai couldn't have possibly been more successful in delivering an atmosphere that is both attention-grabbing and immersive.
For such a well-paced and entertaining piece of cinema, writer/director Oren Shai and co-writer Webb Wilcoxen's crime thriller certainly feels hollow. This largely has to do with the feature's sloppy sense of storytelling and poor attention to character details. Even so, this remains to be an engaging retro crime thriller with a real sense of visual style. Jocelin Donahue does wonders for the film in the lead role, while Kelly Lynch is truly memorable as Luanne. AJ Bowen's exceptional sense of charisma is a welcome addition to a film that needed the personality. The Frontier is a fun, albeit empty crime thriller. Rent it.
The Frontier played at SXSW Film Festival 2015 on March 15th, March 17th. and March 18th.