Editor’s Notes: Frontera is out in limited release this Friday, September 5th. The film is currently playing on Demand and on iTunes.
The “issue drama” is a difficult thing to pull off properly. Usually, when a film exists to “bring to light” an injustice or to lay out a new viewpoint on an old controversy, it tends to forget to be a good movie in the process. Its principles may be in the right place, but it’s a rare film politically potent enough to paper over everything else a movie is usually required to be. The result is generally a milquetoast melodrama draped over a message like a sheet on a well-worn couch. What’s underneath may serve its purpose, but nobody is mistaking that sheet for new upholstery on a furnishing grown old.
…the film is never quite sure what it wants to be. It isn’t a Western, really, and it isn’t a noir film, because it is less interested in the crime and the criminals than in the milieu and a warmed-over political message about intolerance.
Frontera is a fairly standard border-crossing drama, enlivened by some good performances and the sort of compassion and detail that are rare in this subgenre. The film follows Miguel (Michael Pena), a Mexican immigrant wrongly accused of killing a retired sheriff’s wife, and the way it fleshes out its immigrant characters and keeps the lion’s share of its dialogue in Spanish perhaps elevates it slightly. Its themes of tolerance and the cost of blinkered intolerance are rote and a little tedious, but when first time writer-director Michael Berry attempts to elevate the material, he usually comes up with something more interesting than you might expect, even if these moments are too few and far between to save the film from being a fitfully fascinating mediocrity.
Miguel and his friend Jose (Michael Ray Escamilla) cross the border illegally onto the land of retired lawman Roy (Ed Harris, at his Ed Harris-iest) and meet his saintly wife Olivia (Amy Madigan, who imbues the role with a lived-in compassion that makes it register far more than it should). Things go awry quickly when some gun-toting miscreants decide to scare Miguel and Jose back across the border by “just shooting near them.” It’s all fairly predictable from there—the gunshots scare Olivia’s horse, and she is killed in the process. Roy arrives on the scene and sees his dying wife and Miguel looming over her, holding the reins to her horse and looking as suspicious as he has to for Frontera’s plot to be set in motion.
From there, the film is never quite sure what it wants to be. It isn’t a Western, really, and it isn’t a noir film, because it is less interested in the crime and the criminals than in the milieu and a warmed-over political message about intolerance. The actual crime is shot with credible intensity despite its predictability, but then Frontera sort of meanders through a series of events strung together to make political points more than to tell a satisfying or fully coherent story. Those points are, by and large, worth making, and though they have been done before, they tend to be well handled here. Miguel, the painfully honest man in a dishonest world, is picked up on first degree murder charges though he has stayed on the straight and narrow while Jose has been corrupted by desperation after falling in with a more dangerous set of border crossers.
This third act is where things truly fall apart, as Frontera beats viewers over the head with its already-obvious message and some logical leaps that are better left unquestioned.
These early events are uninteresting, but they form a core that allows the film to become the piece of social realism it is at its core from the first. Eva Longoria shows up as Miguel’s wife, who makes some devastating sacrifices in the name of crossing the border herself to track down her husband. She plays out the beats of the story with a grueling realism, though her character feels less fleshed-out than her male counterparts; she exists more to suffer in unsurprisingly grim ways, and to let the film display how horrific the crossing can be for a woman, than to ever become as three-dimensional as Miguel does.
Ed Harris brings his requisite gravitas to the role of Roy, who feels like any number of latter-day Harris characters. Roy too is a “good man,” and so he does the right thing when push comes to shove. The film elides over how much easier his choices are throughout, leaving some of its more interesting points on the table in favor of a scene that lets Miguel and Roy talk things out so that everything can begin to resolve itself neatly.
This third act is where things truly fall apart, as Frontera beats viewers over the head with its already-obvious message and some logical leaps that are better left unquestioned. This is a film with several good actors that is more interested in what happens to them than in who they are. It tries to create humans on both sides of the border (and Pena, especially, is essential to its limited success there), but then mostly let’s them loose to run through a plot that feels like it is ticking off boxes on a political checklist. There’s a better movie here, buried in the dust that cakes it’s characters, stuck beneath a plot that makes its points at the expense of giving them the space to matter.
Frontera is a fairly standard border-crossing drama, enlivened by some good performances and the sort of compassion and detail that are rare in this subgenre.