'Frontier' Puts Nostalgic Copying Above Credible Thrills, Drama

Directed by: Oren Shai; Runtime: 88 minutes
Grade: C-

A lot of cinematic gems that were released in the ‘70s remain largely hidden in obscurity, especially in the crime and mystery subgenres involving a drifter of sorts ... but, of course, not all those movies released during that period have the merits or general strengths to be sought after. Oren Shai worked diligently to recreate the aesthetic of the era with The Frontier, a f and murder mystery centered on a young woman fleeing from an abusive relationship with a few skeletons in her closet. The camera movement and brightness of the 16mm footage, the tailoring of the clothing, and the pace of the dialogue itself transports the viewer back to the era's filmmaking, positioned in a small, dusty town in the middle of nowhere and with an odd batch of people populating its focal hotel/diner. The way the story itself operates in The Frontier, however, can't capitalize on its nostalgic whimsy, crafting a clumsy and absurd lark of a pseudo-thriller that plays like one of those relics from the ‘70s that isn't worth pursuing.

The Frontier is the name of the rest stop positioned between wide expanses of desert -- presumably in Arizona, considering its proximity to "Flagstaff" -- that mostly operates on the patronage of locals and the obscure travelers here and there. One day, a slim, timid drifter named Laine (Jocelin Donahue) parks her car in front of the diner and camps out for the evening, to be greeted by the diner/hotel runner Luanne (Kelly Lynch) in the morning, who takes her under her wing and offers some food, shelter, perhaps more if she's interested in sticking around. Laine's not keen on staying for very long, though, expressed through her suspiciousness of her surroundings and the people who come into the diner: a police officer, an enigmatic and curt man (Jim Beaver) with a beard, and a peculiar lavish-living couple (Izabella Miko; Jamie Harris) with distinct accents. As her time extends in The Frontier, Laine gradually learns more about the situation involving the guests and the ownership of the place, eventually resulting in violence and bloodshed in the expanses of the desert.

On the surface, it'd be easy to mistake The Frontier for a legitimate film shot and released during the ‘70s, where the slow zoom-outs and camera panning -- kinda reminiscent of Robert Altman's work -- accentuate the cinematography's framing of body motion in a distinctive, deliberate manner befitting the period. Director Oren Shai tends to lean on that element like a crutch, though, as the novelty of the visual language isn't enough to conceal the threadbare plotting accelerating it forward, full of developments in the diner that are equally simplistic in design as they are convoluted in execution. The speed in which Laine integrates with the moving parts of the diner and hotel becomes a bizarrely unnatural element, where somehow, in a matter of hours, she quickly flips from a timid person uncertain about sticking around to one of the diner's charismatic waitresses who knows where the hidden liquor's kept and feels totally comfortable offering it to the guests. The same care that went into getting the mood right didn't go into nailing down a credible evolution of circumstances for what's largely a character-driven mystery.

Fault doesn't just lie with the progression of events in The Frontier, but in how Oren Shai executes them through stylized verbal exchanges and body language within the diner's confined space, an inspired but awkward effort resulting in the suspense's layers making less sense than needed. There's a lot of stiff, absurd dialogue surrounding Laine, especially from the oddball travelers and denizens of the desert, from the kooky rich couple -- who occasionally make "the millionaire and his wife" from Gilligan's Island look restrained -- to the pompous, flirtatious police officer who keeps everyone updated on certain events happening in Flagstaff. Each character amounts to a collection of traits instead of perceptible individuals, and the ones who are genuine personalities, like Kelly Lynch's rest-stop overseer Luanne, suffer the consequences of the script's cumbersome shifts in circumstances; the way she earnestly presents an offer to Laine then later rescinds it plays out dumbfoundingly through Oren Shai's direction. No guilty-pleasure effervescence to be found here, either, only clunky, inauthentic babble.

That's a bummer, because substantial and perceptive ambitions linger within The Frontier, centered on Laine's reasoning for fleeing her abusive circumstances, her hesitation in returning to her hometown, and how she plots her next moves while stuck in that rock-and-a-hard-place situation. With bruises on her neck and a sharply standoffish attitude, Laine proves to be an intriguing catalyst for the mysteries of the rest-stop to come out into the open, which eventually involve bloodshed and sneaky double-crosses hinged on the information that Laine absorbs from the other guests and their hidden agendas. Director Oren Shai's shock-value endeavors misjudges the audience's appreciation for these characters, though, and the layers of deceit amount to a hectic and lethal climax without any strong attachments to the players caught in the fray … not even Laine, whose willfully enigmatic persona keeps one at a distance from embracing whatever trouble she's endured. Once the dust settles, The Frontier amounts to an imitation of a relic from the ‘70s that would've made the same muffled impact then as it does now.

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