I hate to admit that I do not really know a lot about classical film noir, despite watching many films in the neo-noir genre like Brick, Sin City and of course, Veronica Mars. But what I do know are some of the main tropes of film noir: the femme fatale, the dirty cop and the fact that a minor crime is a catalyst to a major plot. And all of these tropes are present in Oren Shai‘s directorial film debut, The Frontier. And with a talented ensemble cast and Shai’s knowledge of the genre, this should be a winner. But does it live up to its potential?
Jocelin Donahue stars as Laine, a drifter with a trouble past who stumbles in a desert motel run by a mysterious older woman, Luanne (Kelly Lynch). The two develop a good rapport and Luanne offers Laine a job as a waitress. During her time, she overhears a conversation between a couple (Jamie Harris and Izabella Miko) about a certain heist and that the stolen money is about to be delivered to the thieves at the motel. And assuming that every motel patron (including Jim Beaver and Liam Aiken) is a part of this robbery, Laine hatches a plan to steal the loot for herself.
The plot certainly sounds like it is typical for a film noir, with all the tropes in place. Oren Shai has a lot of affection to the genre and it clearly shows. The Super 16mm cinematography by Jay Kietel looks stunning and it compliments the production design by Trevor Gates to give off a downtrodden vibe. It also helps that there are many details added to the film that make it a technically proficient throwback to film noir. Details such as how newspapers cost 20 cents, the fact that the TV show The Twilight Zone is mentioned, soft drinks like Coca Cola still served in glass bottles, it certainly gives the film a 60’s feel and it makes the film easy to appreciate.
The actors certainly bring up their end of the bargain. Jocelin Donahue, whom I thought was excellent in The House of the Devil, is again perfectly cast as Laine. Shai cleverly uses her image of innocence to play with the audience on whether she really is one with good intentions and Donahue plays her role with aplomb. With The House of the Devil, Insidous: Chapter Two and The Frontier, I sincerely cannot picture Donahue in anything with a modern context. She fits the classical feel like a glove and I can’t wait to see what she does next.
Kelly Lynch, an underrated veteran actress who was great in roles like in Drugstore Cowboy and more known in films like Road House, gives a great performance as Luanne. She makes her character felt, utilizing the much-needed characterization provided by Shai i.e. dead-ends due to career choices. It almost becomes quite touching, since it does (albeit inadvertently) reflect Lynch’s career in a way.
The supporting cast however struggle to give life to their roles, with the exception of AJ Bowen, who plays a charismatic, yet dirty cop. Bring their practiced chemistry built up in The House of the Devil, Bowen and Donahue have great scenes that you wish they had more screentime together.
Despite the committed actors and Shai’s affection to the film noir genre, it is quite disappointing to say that The Frontier is not as good as it could have been. The two main problems are found in it storytelling and the characterization. Even with a 90 minute run-time, the pacing is quite glacial, though the film does become more involving in its final act, where all the pieces come together – and ultimately proves to engage the audience. As for the characters, most of them are not that well defined beyond their archetypes, which makes it hard to invest in their plight, despite the best efforts from the actors.
Overall, The Frontier serves as an excellent showcase for its actors (especially Donahue) as well as a striking calling card for Shai’s directorial chops. However, though its story is engaging, the flaws in its storytelling and character development do keep it from being as great a film as it could have been.
Review Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Select theatrical engagements of The Frontier will be followed by a DVD/Blu-Ray/multi-platform VOD release. Head to the film’s Facebook Page for all the details.