Frontera Review

Posted: August 3, 2014 in Action, Drama, Reviews
Tags: , , , , , , ,

frontera04Those with strong views on the issue of immigration may find Frontera maddening. The film assiduously avoids coming down on either side of this polarizing issue. There is no macro examination here of the situation on the border between Mexico and the United States. Instead, Frontera offers a micro look at the devastating effects of the forces at play on the families on either side of the divide. Currently, a wrenching, confusing scene is playing out in the southwestern United States with unaccompanied and undocumented minors flooding across the porous border. Local authorities are overwhelmed; the federal government feeble so far in its response. The film offers no insight or answers, glib or otherwise, to what should, must, or even can be done. Frontera takes an almost old-fashioned view of the situation on the border, presenting the problem as one of young Mexican men crossing over illegally in search of employment to provide for their families.

Director Michael Berry and his screenwriting partner Louis Moulinet avoid sentimentality almost as strongly as they resist politics. Their approach is similar to that taken by Steven Soderbergh and Stephen Gaghan in Traffic and Paul Haggis and Robert Moresco in Crash. Interlocking stories featuring an ensemble cast are used to tease out the drama from a controversial subject. While Frontera is not as grand in scope or as successful as those two films (each of which won multiple Academy Awards including Oscars for Best Screenplay), Berry nonetheless turns in outstanding work in his first feature film. The cinematography by Joel Ransom is crisp and pragmatic, rightly eschewing the temptation of inappropriate romantic western vistas in favor of rugged earth trails interrupted by barbed wire, and paved asphalt roadways halved by checkpoints. Add a fine traditional Western score by Kenneth Lampl and Darren Tate, and Frontera sets the table with considerable behind-the-camera talent.

It’s the talent in front of the camera, however, that knocks it out of the park. Start with Amy Madigan. She plays Olivia, the co-owner of an Arizona ranch along with her husband Roy (Ed Harris) that runs smack on the border with Mexico. Roy might might be a retired sheriff, but it’s Olivia that wears the spurs at home. Madigan’s power is amazing in the twenty minutes she is in the movie. She commands attention and respect from those sharing scenes with her, whether it’s her husband or two illegal aliens she encounters on her property. An act too mean spirited to be called an accident results in Olivia’s death, and one of the two illegals, Miguel (Michael Peña) is arrested for her murder. Miguel’s wife, Paulina (Eva Longoria) pays a coyote to take her across the border to help her husband, only to find herself assaulted and exploited.

Longoria delivers an unexpectedly powerful performance. In her first Spanish speaking role, the actress best known for Desperate Housewives reveals previously unseen dramatic chops. In a standout cast, she still merits special attention for a brave, unglamorous, dirty fingernails performance on which a good part of the middle act of the film hinges. Harris is Harris, which is to say, excellent. Harris in a Western (and at its heart, Frontera is a Western about good and decent folk) is as natural as The Duke on a horse. Peña is also first rate, while Seth Adkins as Sean, a high schooler who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong friends and his father’s gun turns in nice work as well.

You may think you have this one figured out ten minutes from the finish, only to find out that it does not end exactly as you expected. One grandiose gesture that audiences will anticipate is mockingly turned aside. Those who seem to be going their own separate ways are to found to be inexplicably joined forever. And thanks to film editor Larry Madaras’s heart-pounding cut of the last two minutes of the film, you will be riveted to your seat until the very end.

Three stars.


  1. freddiebones says:

    I disagree, as far as I think the film definitely comes down on the side of reason and compassion …

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