Seven characters are in search of an exit in Oren Shai’s retro thriller The Frontier. Set in a run-down motel truck stop/diner, like Robert Altman’s Fool for Love with a higher body count, The Frontier pits a group of low-down dirty crooks against each other, all of them hoping to make off with a big payday.
Our entry into this world is Laine (Jocelin Donahue), a young woman who says she’s on the run from an abusive boyfriend, but the real story is a lot more complicated. She winds up at The Frontier, a motel-diner where everything lookings greasy, including the customers. The diner is run by Luanne (Kelly Lynch), who takes pity on Laine and offers her a job, much to the disdain of permanent fixture Lee (Jim Beaver, reaching maximum levels of gruffness). Other characters drift in: airheaded Gloria (Izabella Miko) and her more sophisticated lover Flynn (Jamie Harris); the rude, young Eddie (Liam Aiken); and local law enforcement Officer Gault (AJ Bowen). These characters all have their own secrets, and it’s not long before Laine is in over her head.
The Frontier has a lot going for it. Its cast — particularly Donahue, Lynch and Beaver — go all-in on their characters. Beaver can play this sort of scowling heavy in his sleep, yet it doesn’t make his performance any less enjoyable to watch. And while Shai’s co-writing talents may be lacking, his direction has a stylishness that mostly keeps The Frontier afloat.
Yet The Frontier falters on a basic script level. The screenplay, by Shai and Webb Wilcoxen, feels gobbled together from rejected Coen Brothers plots and re-runs on TCM. There’s a hollowness to the story; a sense that none of this is happening anywhere close to the real world. It unfolds more like a one-act community theatre play than a film narrative. There are also odd mistakes that instantly take you out of the film: Laine is usually the only person working in the diner, yet if a customer comes in and orders food, she’s able to grab it — fully prepared — from the kitchen, despite the fact that there’s no cook back there making it. A repetitiveness takes hold as well — in trying to create character traits for Laine, the script locks her into doing the same things over and over again to the point that it grows tedious.
Had The Frontier been the pilot for a noir-ish HBO drama, or better yet, adapted into a stage play, it would play much better. As a film, though, it suffers. A game cast and several clever moments of staging aren’t enough to rescue the film from itself, making this a Frontier not worth exploring.