Director: Oren Shai
Stars: Jocelin Donahue, Kelly Lynch, Izabella Miko
“Where is Rod Serling? I feel like I just entered an episode of The Twilight Zone!” So speaks one of a variety of eccentric characters in Oren Shai’s deliciously stylish The Frontier; an example of self-aware dialogue in a film that seems to exist wholly within a set of inverted commas. Announced seemingly an age ago with a series of gorgeous posters (below), Shai’s film promises pulpy desert noir, something given further credence thanks to it’s roster of interesting character actors. Kelly Lynch is here, as are Deadwood‘s Jim Beaver and Izabella Miko, also AJ Bowen of – among other things – Ti West’s modern retro-horror masterpiece The House Of The Devil. But the real draw is that film’s lead Jocelin Donahue, finally afforded another top billing appearance. Really it’s been too long.
Donahue plays Laine, a woman on the road with no genuine destination. Stopped at a diner-cum-motel which gives the film it’s title, Laine spins a story for the owner Luanne (Lynch) which suggests she’s walked out on a bad beau, but the film’s opening imagery of Laine’s blooded hands, along with her keen lock-picking abilities and her interest in a local police matter tip the audience that there’s more to her than we yet know. Instead of moving on, Laine hangs around at The Frontier, taking up Luanne’s offer of a job. Does it have anything to do with a kooky couple staying there also? Certainly a diamond necklace in a travel suitcase has her attention…
Shai’s picture is a strange beast by design. His set of characters are bizarre archetypes, their costumes defy locating the story in any one decade. The desert setting adds a strange sense of entropy or limbo to proceedings, as though we’re in fact watching a lost set of ‘hosts’ from Westworld acting out their own hokey masterpiece theatre. Beaver’s suited heavy Lee looks like a discard from the deck in Reservoir Dogs, while Miko and her oddball British partner played by Jamie Harris look and act like they stepped out of an abandoned David Lynch short from the 90’s. Bowen’s law officer convinces least of all. You’d be tempted to chalk up the weirdness and unease to bad acting if nearly everyone here wasn’t already proven.
No, the stilted mix is intentional. Before long these disparate folks are tentatively working together as a crime story rustled up from a dime store novel begins to unspool, and the feeling is as though supporting players from separate Stephen King novels have all bumped into one another by coincidence in a weird ‘what if…’ episode that’s been left unpublished until now.
Donahue anchors everything. Shai is, one suspects, a great fan of The House Of The Devil and takes to shooting his lead with the same sense of fascinated reverence that West afforded her. The framing and lighting throughout the film is pitch-perfect and Donahue benefits from its favour most of all. Her performance here isn’t showy, but it is appealing and eminently interesting. Shai’s film is intriguing every time she’s centre frame.
The Frontier shows it’s hand as a piece of reverential filmmaking in other ways. Luanne’s sob story reminiscence in the middle of the film sounds like something spun out by a screenwriter for a 50’s melodrama. The film at large feels indebted to the dusty Californian noir of such classics as Detour or The Postman Always Rings Twice. This pervading sensibility helps to add to the temporal blurriness. The Frontier takes place in a cloud of cinema. A fake world of starless skies and endless roads. It’s one true bum note is its most obviously ‘modern’ character Eddie (Liam Aiken); more of an early 90’s slacker dude type; the most ill-at-ease in an ill-at-ease mix.
So while the kooky central plot sees tentative alliances falter, the mechanics of the story are less impressive than the feeling evoked by them and specifically by the performances. I keep coming back to that strange sense that each of these characters is aware that they are just characters in a movie, assuming identities based on their picks from the dress-up box. They play out their routines off of one another and this allows their relationships to mutate and evolve. Miko even has a small aside with Aiken in which they play with fancy dress props in one of the diner’s booths. In Shai’s world you are what you wear.
As a crime thriller, The Frontier is a brazenly weird one, but Shai’s assemblage of the material makes this a notable little picture. He walks a fine line between homage and fevered dream. This is cinema made from the pieces of other cinema. But instead of coming across in the vein of a Tarantino movie in which all characters are reduced to consequence-free cartoons, the end result feels tinged with sadness, with tragedy. Try as Laine might; she’ll never fully escape the beam from the projection booth, never escape the confines of the screen.