A dark horse among dark horses, Michael Berry’s Frontera nonetheless holds its own admirably amongst the very best films 2014 had to offer. Elements of crime dramas, westerns and thrillers come together marked by a thoroughly striking performance from Ed Harris, to create a gripping journey that is often poignant and bleak, but also full of hope. Beginning with the aspirations of a young Mexican man on his second attempt to get across the border and make a new start in the United States, the film winds into a set of complex misunderstandings and explores the desperation, hardship and discrimination that real Mexicans experience in attempting to make the same journey.
Frontera is expert in the way it plays with the viewers expectations from the outset. Appearing in many ways to be a modern day western, it’s tempting to expect the story to develop as a traditional Western would, (Ed Harris’s character has all the hallmarks of the strong silent heroes integral to more traditional westerns, further instilling an expectation of something more like a western,) into an action packed, vengeance fuelled game of cat and mouse on the arid border between the United States and Mexico. It is seemingly given the chance to do so in the opening scenes but what develops instead has much more depth than the action packed alternative. Equally many characters that at first glance are expected to be integral to the story turn out to only hold relatively small roles and this further manipulates what the viewer expects from the film, making the twists of the plot all the more enthralling and unpredictable.
Hand in hand with Frontera’s manipulation of the viewers’ expectations, goes it’s adherence to the measured grittiness of its writing, this gives the film a feel of consistent and genuine realism. Don’t expect to see all the heart-wrenching loose ends tied up neatly and certainly don’t expect an uplifting film, but Frontera will grip. Crucially Frontera tells a story about real survivors, forced to overcome realistic and relevant struggles, addressing (but not focusing around,) issues of racism and the way that the discrimination and friction is heightened along the border between the U.S. and Mexico. Arguably the exemplary moment of the films blend of bleakness, realism and hope is (spoiler alert!) the moment in which the young Mexican couple are re-united after the wife’s abduction and rape during her attempt to cross the border in pursuit of her struggling husband, again it doesn’t lead to any sort of brutal revenge mission and instead creates by far the films’ most touching and thought provoking moment.
Frontera’s lasting appeal comes in its ability to strike a great balance between satisfaction in its conclusions and maintaining a consistent thread of strikingly convincing realism throughout. Ed Harris’ near perfect performance adds another level of quality to the film as he portrays a character who remains slightly removed from the base, racial layer of the tensions running high along the border. The fact that Frontera marks Michael Berry’s directorial debut makes its achievements still more remarkable and the fact that he co-wrote it only reinforces the fact that we can expect great things from him in the future. All in all Frontera ties together to create a fantastically well-constructed story, though one that almost feels simplistic and straight-forward through the effectiveness of its realism and arguably it’s short runtime. Give some thought though to rarity of such honest writing that remains so dramatically effective and Frontera will both enthral you and make you think.
By George Storr