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SXSW Review: THE FRONTIER is Where Criminals Check In and Morals Check Out

Generally speaking, film noir deals with themes like alienation, paranoia, and the waning influence of decency in an ever more vice-ridden world. And then sometimes film noir is just about a bunch of colorfully devious characters who keep stabbing each other in the back in all sorts of amusing/entertaining ways. That’s exactly what the nifty new neo-noir ensemble called The Frontier feels like: a few little morality lessons here and there, but mostly just a bunch of crooks, crimes, double-dealings, triple-crosses, and untimely demises.

Plot synopsis, short version: a desperate young woman is on the run from the law, so she takes a break from the desert roads at an isolated hotel to gather her thoughts — but it quickly becomes clear to Laine (Jocelin Donahue) that there are some seriously shady dealings afoot at The Frontier. She reluctantly accepts a job at the motel diner, and that’s when the troublemakers start to show up.

There’s the oddly welcoming hotel manager (Kelly Lynch) who is plainly living in the past; an obnoxiously “upper class” couple (Jamie Harris and Izabella Miko) who seem more than a little out of place in this flyspeck of a motel; a gruff and mean-spirited blowhard (Jim Beaver); a cop (AJ Bowen) best described as charmingly schizophrenic, and, of course, a few unexpected guests here and there. It doesn’t take long for Laine to realize that this collection of crooks is planning a “big heist” of some sort, so of course she starts hatching her own devious plans on how she can steal their score.

The fact that Laine may also be a criminal in her own right makes things a little more difficult for our crafty anti-heroine, and that’s sort of what makes The Frontier so much fun: we instantly want to pull for Laine, even though we’re not even sure if she’s a victim or a villain. It’s also worth noting that Ms. Donahue’s performance is simply excellent, and that her supporting cast is aces across the board, but the charm of the movies lies in its hard-boiled, tough-talking, and frequently tongue-in-cheek dialogue and its simple yet circuitous story.

Written by Webb Wilcoxen and first-time director Oren Shai, The Frontier offers a simple premise and an enjoyable collection of noir-style archetypal characters, yet the dialogue is frequently sharp and witty, and while the set-up is pretty basic, it doesn’t take long before the twists, turns, and unexpected betrayals start hitting the screen.

It’s also well-paced, nicely shot, and smart enough to give each member of the ensemble a few moments to shine. The Frontier is Ms. Donahue’s movie all the way, but between the supporting cast, the nastily amusing screenplay, and the endless double-crossings and back-stabbings, there are simply a lot of enjoyable facets to be found in this crafty little wise-assed neo-noir thriller.

4 out of 5 colorful yet untrustworthy burritos

4 burritos

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