Hey look, here’s a minor gem that I found via video store browsing. I never heard of it and it seems to have gotten not-great reviews and little mileage for its rookie director (despite having the audacity to have “a film by Oren Shai” not only on the cover, but the DVD menu). But it’s a solid and great looking little neo-noir kind of in the vein of RED ROCK WEST, but smaller scale and more retro.
Like so many of these stories it follows a mysterious drifter who stops at a small diner/motel on a desert road somewhere, desperate, hiding a secret and then getting mixed up in some more trouble. An unusual twist is that this drifter is a woman, Laine, played by Jocelin Donahue from HOUSE OF THE DEVIL. And she’s not some BOUND style tough girl either, she wears nice sweaters and skirts and doesn’t intimidate anybody. But she has blood on her hands, both literally and figuratively.
Her backstory is implied and revealed through small things: stashing a money clip in the bathroom, examining a rope burn on her neck, reports of murder in another city, a cop (A.J. Bowen, YOU’RE NEXT, THE GUEST) having one of those conversations with her that could be honest friendliness but is more likely a veiled threat. We watch Laine navigate small talk questions she doesn’t want to answer, wind up with a room for the night and a job as a waitress, and practically give us a heart attack by sneaking into the rooms to look through guests’ luggage for something valuable enough to get her the fuck out of Dodge. This stuff is very reminiscent of Marion Crane trying to get away with the money in the first part of PSYCHO.
Then it starts to seem like she might be able to pay for more than that. It becomes clear that the other people hanging around the diner were involved in an armored car robbery and are waiting for their money. She plots an overthrow while pouring their coffee.
In many ways it feels like a play. A limited batch of characters is confined to the diner, a handful of motel rooms, the dusty parking lot, and some car interiors – I like that simplicity. In a few weak moments the conversation seems stilted like a not terrible, not great production by a college drama department. But these minor rough spots are overcome by Donahue’s performance and the strong look of the film, shot on 16mm by cinematographer Jay Keitel (The Girlfriend Experience Season 2), with really appealing costumes by Yasmine Abraham (THE DEVIL’S REJECTS). I wasn’t sure at first if it was meant to be timeless or period, but we learn that the motel’s ex-showgirl owner Luanne (Kelly Lynch, ROAD HOUSE) was up for the Bette Davis part in DARK VICTORY. So it’s both.
Not surprisingly it’s cool to see Lynch in the role. At first Luanne seems to live a nice simple life running this cozy little place, then you realize she hates it and laments her lost dream of stardom. She alternates between being protective of Laine and being kind of petty toward her. She has a great moment when (SPOILER) almost all her cohorts have killed each other and she happily says that it went better than expected. I love the long take of Luanne and Laine driving in silence after the shit has gone down. You see a parade of thoughts and emotions going over each of their faces as they process what just happened and what’s next.
I also like Jamie Harris (RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES) and Izabella Miko (STEP UP ALL IN, CLASH OF THE TITANS) as Flynn and Gloria, margarita loving couple who are kind of fun to hang out with and make drinks for, unlike their grouchy boss Lee (Jim Beaver, JOY RIDE) or Gloria’s obnoxious little brother Eddie (Liam Aiken, ROAD TO PERDITION). I bet Laine feels kind of the same as we do – she’s trying to play them, but starts to kind of like Flynn and feel sorry for Gloria, who looks like she had Marilyn Monroe dreams but has settled for having kind of a sugar daddy.
There’s some pretty simple symbolism. Laine cries while watching a cartoon about a lamb chased by wolves with knives and guns. (NOTE: Hats off to the production for using a vintage public domain cartoon instead of getting some art school friend to animate a fake one. That shit never works out.) “The Frontier” is the name of the motel and diner, and Gloria says it reminds her of the past but really represents the future. I suppose that goes for both the motel and the movie. These people all feel they’ve failed in the past and they’re fighting for a way to a new life. Ironically, Luanne and Laine have both suffered at the hands of violent men but (SPOILER) will be pitted against each other once they’ve outlasted the others. None of this is deep, but I like it.
No, there’s not much that’s original about THE FRONTIER, and it’s not a work of holy-shit directorial brilliance like BLOOD SIMPLE or something. But it’s a very effective entry in a genre we don’t get nearly enough of, especially now, with a look and feel that we also don’t tend to get in the digital age. If you like the neo-noir joints like I do, definitely check out THE FRONTIER. Too bad Shai hasn’t made any follow-ups. But I’m very happy I found this one.