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SXSW Review: The Frontier

To watch The Frontier is to take a drivers seat in the Delorean and dial the settings to 1971. It has a distinctively "homage" feeling to it - as if it were a previously unreleased Hitchcock movie, filmed a short peck after The Birds. Unlike The Guest or Cold in July, The Frontier doesn't play with old movie tropes so much as it practices a brand of straight-forward imitation, aping the style of Vietnam-era genre films, much like Ti West has done with The House of the Devil. The result is as if A Simple Plans met Pyscho in a back-alley, early-70s country thriller. It's not quite horror, not quite a western but Oren Shai's pulpy throwback is stylized beyond reproach, even if rather laid back narratively.

The Frontier is a motel in the middle of nowhere. This remote and rundown last resort of lodging plays a seminal role in Shai's film and much like the Bate's Motel, its crumbling facade, dinky rooms and hardly tidy cafe are the focal points of the action. Housing a small stable of overtly suspicious characters, The Frontier is a melting pot of people past their prime trying to make moves of fame and fortune.

Amongst that suspicious crew, Luanne (Kelly Lynch) runs the place, having semi-inherited it after her 15 minutes went tits up years back and she's has been stuck here ever since. Shady business partner and all around scumbag Lee (Jim Beaver) is a kind of suspicious, take-it-or-leave-it type. He's gruff and handsy in all the wrong ways and his all work and no play attitude makes him a dull boy on the verge of snapping. Jamie Harris plays a faux-debonair English playboy passing through with crassly ritzy wife Gloria (Izabella Miko) and the pair provide a fair measure of the film's desert dry comedy. But the show belongs to Jocelin Donahue's Laine who arrives at the motel running from an incident that left her literally red-handed and with a ring of bruises decorating her neck. The pitying Luanne - who has seen her fair share of battered beaus - offers her a gig behind the cafe's counter but Laine is hesitant. After overhearing a plot to thieve two million dollars though, she agrees to stay but clearly not for the reason she's letting on.


Shot on Super 16mm to really highlight the dated aesthetic that Shai is looking for, The Frontier taps into the golden age of movies and not only in terms of its production design and costumes but in terms of its performances and screenplay. Harris in particular is delightfully hammy and Donahue herself could have been one of Hitchcock's gals had she been around 50 odd years ago. And while it's a simple joy to tap into a bygone era, one might find themselves underwhelmed by the story's depth - or lack there of.

Written by Shai and co-writer Webb Wilcoxen, The Frontier can be a touch white bread-y in terms of its minimalism and narrative economy. There is a heist aspect to the film which is mostly underwhelming and bare bones. And though the aftermath of the film's lynch pin event proves catastrophic, Shai and Wilcoxen could have invested more time into ironing out the subtle roles within the group. For a gang comprised of such archetypical Hollywood bits, there is little effort to make sense of how the group performs their criminal feat. Rather the tension is placed on how they do not gel with one another, mounting uneasy relationships that are quick to sour.

In some ways, this adds to the austere nature of Shai's reverent tribute but it may prove a distraction for those used to more narrative twists and turns in their genre films. If there's one thing that cannot be taken from The Frontier, it's Shai's manifest commitment to style. From the blustering deserts, their blood red sunsets, smoky shoot-outs and Laine's distinctively dated and distinguishably awesome bangs, The Frontier seeps cool. Those looking for a stylish, sleek homage to way-back-then, The Frontier is your one stop shop.


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