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The Frontier | 2015 SXSW Film Festival Review

Too Late For Tears: Shai Plumbs the Depths of B-Noir Devices for Punchy Debut

The Frontier Oren Shai PosterA brunette with bloody fingers shakily inhales the fumes of a cigarette in the opening sequences of Oren Shai’s directorial debut, The Frontier, a title that evokes the desolation of a vintage Western. But this musty, dusty period narrative concerning shady folks doing very bad things in an isolated outpost in the middle of nowhere is a snug throwback to the B film-noirs that used to be spackled into double feature zingers at the local matinee. Not one of Shai’s motley, if generally entertaining crew, qualifies as the proverbial ‘good person,’ but he manages to instill the same sense of investment in a beautiful but morally compromised femme fatale as those films from a bygone era. Though its production value sometimes belies a stingy budget with amateurish sting, Shai manages to distract from these shortcomings with a good old fashioned dose of murder, mayhem, and a big bag of stolen money.

Laine (Joceline Donahue) is on the run from the law. Attempting to flee after committing a murder, she stops outside an isolated diner and motel in the middle of the desert, The Frontier. Run by Luanne (Kelly Lynch), Laine is delayed by a flat tire, though she’s luckily assisted by the kindly Officer Gault (AJ Bowen), who frequents the diner for coffee. But before she can go, friendly Luanne offers her a job at the motel. Laine agrees to stay, but happens to overhear some other surprise guests mention that they’re waiting at The Frontier to collect their cut from a recent robbery.

Some may recognize Jocelin Donahue from her supporting stint in Insidious: Chapter 2 (she played the young version of Barbara Hershey), and visually (in a superficial sense), she’s reminiscent of Katherine Waterston’s head turning stint in Inherent Vice but with a whole lot more self-determined agency. The Frontier basically feels like the shaggy dog homage to a glorious era of hardboiled B noir productions, except that in its bid to resuscitate that certain feeling, somehow manages to feel more chintzy than its likely comparisons.

While Donahue manages to be a likeable femme fatale, several sequences feel rushed and awkward, the actors forced through snippets of dialogue that sometimes feel forced. Jamie Harris and Izabella Miko bear the brunt of this, while simultaneously looking as if costume designer Yasmine Abraham made them either dress themselves or wickedly revel in making them look like old Barbie and Ken dolls dug out of a garden gone to seed. AJ Bowen, as usual, seems smug as the pestering police officer that inconveniently pops up.

More satisfactory is Kelly Lynch as the leggy blonde running the eponymous dead end diner. She recalls that trio of actresses that played Cora in the multiple adaptations of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (Lana Turner; Jessica Lange; Nina Hoss), and her character ends up being a faded beauty drummed out of the film industry following a scandal involving studio head Jack Warner and director Edmund Golding over the lead role in Dark Victory (which went to Bette Davis).

Shai is gleefully aware of his intertextual references, including Luanne’s failed film project she’d co-authored, No Time For Tears, which she lapses into during a psychotic break (which recalls that Lizabeth Scott noir, Too Late for Tears, 1949). Simple and even sometimes silly, The Frontier still manages to be a lot of fun, a throwback to the days when studios would still churn out these little doozies that really managed to grasp at the more malevolent aspects of human nature.

Reviewed on March 15 at the 2015 SXSW Film Festival – Narrative Spotlight. 88 Mins.

★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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