J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

The Frontier: In the Noir Tradition

Business is slower at Luanne’s greasy spoon than at the diner in Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. Like the eatery in Petrified Forest, it seems to attract more criminals than customers. Laine is one of the former, but at least there are extenuating circumstances surrounding her crime. The rest of the bunch are just back-stabbing thieves, but they keep things interesting in Oren Shai’s The Frontier (trailer here), which releases today on digital VOD, from Kino Lorber.

Laine is clearly on the run, but the motel-diner called The Frontier might look like a good place to hide out. Frankly, she is not inclined to stay put for very long, until she hears two guests talking about a delivery of laundered money. Hmm, maybe that could be the proceeds of the big heist that went down a few towns over. That gives her an incentive to accept Luanne’s job offer. Of course, there is also the recent murder of a local political bigwig’s son. Everything is definitely connected, so do not trust anyone.

Although she is definitely an ambiguous anti-heroine, Laine will be the closest thing we have to a rooting interest. Her boss Luanne (at least for a day or two), is a former Hollywood starlet who never made it, but still drifts along in a haze like Norma Desmond. Flynn, the Michael York-esque guest is a lot more fun to have around than Gloria, his mentally unstable arm-candy. However, Lee, the closest thing to the boss of the gang, is just mean as a snake. Throw them all into the same room and there is bound to be trouble.

Frontier is gritty neo-noir thriller that wears its Jim Thompson and James Cain influences on its sleeve. It has an unplaceable period feel, but cinematographer Jay Keitel’s pulpy, Hopper-ish look could fit anytime from the early sixties through the late seventies.

Jocelin Donahue probably continues to be best known for House of the Devil, despite working steadily since then. However, this could be the film that breaks her out. She is terrific as the squirrely Laine. She covers tremendous ground, acting the vulnerable babe-in-the-woods one minute and a scheming femme fatale the next. Jamie Harris is just a boozy trip as the roguish Flynn. Jim Beaver makes a seriously evil cuss as bad old Lee. Somehow, even in a film like this, Kelly Lynch seems to overplay Luanne’s Blanche DuBois act. However, AJ Bowen adds some destabilizing arsenic as the erratic Officer Gault.

Seeing the relatively unheralded Frontier might give those of us who were too young to have been there an idea what is was like when the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple just sprang up, seemingly out of nowhere. Shai had the benefit of an experienced, indie-centric ensemble, but it is still likely to catch most folks by surprise. It looks great and clearly enjoys its twisty ways. Highly recommended for noir fans, The Frontier launches today on digital VOD platforms, including iTunes, with a DVD release scheduled for December 6th.

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