Frontera, 2014

Magnolia Pictures

There are films driven by characters, we call them character-driven narratives. After watching Frontera the term seemed awkward; characters. Is that all we see from the comfort of our chairs? Characters that make you furious, ecstatic, curious, scared, alive, dead. Living their instincts on screen is no mean feat. Making the audience connect with them with as little as an edge-of-mouth smile and wincing at the sun. Not calm but calming blue eyes that watch as someone leaves, is akin to controlling the braided bull. Blue eyes that feel warm and comforting; the eyes of a wise man who has aged well, however with his share of the Hollywood dismissal. Ed Harris is a person whose characters don’t only talk to us but they hold our hand, even if they look in the other direction and ask, knowingly, ‘Where you headed?’.

Michael Peña (The Vatican Tapes) is an actor who has looked best in an NYPD beat uniform, yet; World Trade Center, 1996 as Officer Will Jimeno and End of Watch, 2012: Officer Mike Zavala.

Here he plays an unemployed Mexican man named Miguel, who wants to illegally cross borders into New Mexico, US, and look for small jobs until he can sponsor his wife and child. Peña gives an honest, rather solemn performance that stitches the narrative together, carefully. His timing and body language change with the slightest hint of character nuance, according to each film he does. The trust never goes away, therefore.

The trembling plot reminds me of one of the stories in Babel, 2006. In retrospect it is ironic or karma (however you like yours) that Peña plays a US Border Patrol officer, Patrol Officer John – who tries his best to not let the aliens enter from the less monitored sites.

The scenes with Peña, Michael Ray Escamilla, and Amy Madigan (The Hunt) could have taken a turn for the perilous, but it is the lullaby in her Spanish that brings a certain serenity to the scene. Peñaand Madigan gives a career-high, a highly impressive performances and hence a triangular bond is formed with the audience; soon to be shaken and rattled with dilemmas, wrongly accused men, human traffickers, bad decisions and a man who doubts, a man who sees his wife with love and hurt in his eyes as he offers to give company and she refuses, ‘your knee’s not right’. He smiles in a heartbroken way and just like that Roy is formed, complete with the cowboy attire and an accent. He genuinely cares for his wife; ‘you bring the walkie-talkie with you?’ he asks after putting a pad-lock under the horse saddle, without her knowing. Michael Berry (The Touch of Satan, 1971) has the feel. There’s a scene where a coffee mug adds layers to an extremely touching performance.

Eva Longoria gets top billing but little screen presence. She pulls it off alright, however mostly hiding behind her folks or her hair. Madigan has an even less time in the screenplay, however, it is to the end that we know she is and always has been there. That is how striking and confident her performance is.

Frontera deals with a multitude of issues, that can easily be figured during the first half. It is the direction and writing by Michael Berry & Luis Moulinet III that give us a feel of the cruel desert and the hardened border jumpers. He not only focuses on his cast members but also uses nature, the climatic score by Darren Tate and Kenneth Lampl and the dusty, grimy, isolated, windy set-pieces to add character.

There’s a scene where Roy is sitting and listening to his own voice-mail phone greeting in Livy’s voice, a cheerful greeting, full of life. It is then we see Virgil ‘Bud’ Brigman, Carl Fogarty. General Francis X. Hummel and Gene Kranz (“failure is not an option”Apollo 13, 1995) come together and explode inside him and the eyes tell of a life marred by ambitions and the loss of a companion.

We see Roy like no man should be seen, at his most vulnerable. And Harris boldly bares all. 

We stay connected to this warm and kind man. until the last gun-cock, like always – even when he is giving orders to dirty bomb San Francisco.

Frontera is available to stream on Netflix.

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