OREN SHAI’S THE FRONTIER — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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Sometimes, a film sneaks up on you and takes you completely by surprise. That’s what happened when I viewed The Frontier, a very stylish neo-noir/contemporary western mash-up from director Oren Shai. The less you know about this crafty, twisty, and totally terrific gem the better, as it offers up narrative surprises to match its extremely sharp sense of aesthetics. Clocking in at an extra-tight 83 minutes, the screenplay concocted by Shai and Webb Wilcoxen tips its hat to various genre staples while presenting its own brand of down and dirty atmosphere and attitude. The story pivots on the actions of Laine (the excellent and striking Jocelin Donahue), a loner who drifts into a desert town and stumbles into a plan to rip off some cash from a group of volatile thieves who have taken up refuge at a sketchy motel run by a potentially duplicitous owner named Luanne (Kelly Lynch in an out-of-nowhere performance of complete control and command).

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What happens next I will leave for you to discover, but I will allow that the juicy scenario cooked up by Shai and Wilcoxen is thick with danger and potential violence, while various characters shuffle in and out of view, resulting in a film that feels compact yet bursting with possibilities. The supporting cast of Izabella Miko, Jim Beaver, Jamie Harris, A.J. Bowen, and Liam Aiken all turn in solid performances that perfectly fit the menacing milieu. On an aesthetic level, The Frontier is nearly impeccable, with extra-precise lensing coming from cinematographer Jay Keitel, who chose to shoot the project on 16mm film, and a creepy yet eclectic musical score composed by Ali Helnwein. The spare yet efficient production design by Lindsey Moran stresses open space and confined quarters, making great use of physical locations that project a sense of unease which adds another layer to the piece. Shai also co-edited the picture with Humphrey Dixon, and as a result, you get the sense that every single shot came out as fully intended by the director.

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And I really enjoyed observing how Shai and Wilcoxen subverted numerous expectations all throughout, starting with having a female lead in a role that 99% of the time might have gone to a male; the film is all the more successful and enjoyable because of this one simple decision. The film keeps you in its grasp all the way until the absolute final shot, and feels uncompromised at every turn. After making its premiere at the 2015 South by Southwest Film Festival, indie specialist Kino Lorber acquired the film for release in cinemas and on physical media. The Frontier is currently playing in limited theatrical release, and will be available to stream via iTunes, Amazon, VUDU, and Hulu starting November 8th. The Blu-ray and DVD are available for pre-order, with a December 6th street date. This is a fantastic piece of pure cinema that casts its spell immediately, never looking back, and staying true to its convictions all the way until the cut to black.

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