A woman on the run, a last-chance motel and a lonely stretch of desert highway set the stage for “The Frontier,” an appreciably moody but dramatically stilted crime drama that exudes a certain retro appeal before collapsing into a series of empty neo-noir poses. The debut narrative feature for Israeli-born Oren Shai shows much affection for all things pulp, but a less steady hand with performance and pacing. Some modest festival play should follow the film’s SXSW premiere, before it disappears into that vast American indie abyss known as VOD.
The central figure here is Laine (Jocelin Donahue), a classical femme fatale in the “Psycho”/”Gone Girl” mold, who turns up at the Frontier, a dust-caked motel on the outskirts of Phoenix, with deep bruises on her neck and blood on her hands, looking for a place to clean up and maybe lie low for a while. The TV and newspapers are flush with reports of a murdered Flagstaff businessman with political ambitions, and it doesn’t take long (for the audience, at least) to balance this equation. Sensing a fellow lost soul, flinty proprietress Luanne (Kelly Lynch) offers Laine a room and even a part-time waitressing job in the motel diner, where the eccentric clientele includes a British bon vivant (Jamie Harris), his bimbo wife (Izabella Miko), her brother (Liam Aiken), and a surly bruiser (Jim Beaver) who glowers threateningly at all who cross his eyeline.
Something is wrong with this picture, and it isn’t just Laine, who soon realizes that these Frontier habitues have recently made their own headline news — as accomplices to a $2 million heist, the freshly laundered profits of which are due to arrive at the diner imminently. And from there, the double- and triple-crosses pile up like so much dirty linen in the motel laundry. It’s a premise rife with possibility, and Shai is the kind of pastiche artist who only steals from the best: Beyond the obvious nods to “Psycho” (whose Marion Crane was fleeing from, rather than to, Phoenix), “The Frontier” is a movie deeply under the spell of Kubrick’s “The Killing,” the Coens’ “Blood Simple,” and the crackerjack latter-day noirs of John Dahl (“Kill Me Again,” “Red Rock West,” “The Last Seduction”). Shai also takes a page or two from Stephen Frears’ masterful “The Grifters,” working with production designer Trevor Gates to create an unspecified period look that makes it impossible to pinpoint the exact era in which the movie is set — possibly the 1960s (there are references to “The Twilight Zone,” and the price of a newspaper is 20 cents), or perhaps just a town that time forgot.
With all those atmospheric touches in place (including nicely grainy Super 16mm cinematography by Jay Keitel), “The Frontier” ought to soar, but instead it stalls, ground down by sluggish plotting, some strained attempts at hard-boiled dialogue (“When I tell somebody to leave and they don’t, my teeth get hot”), and the kind of overly emphatic acting one associates with well-intentioned student films. There’s a fine line between pastiche and kitsch, and too often “The Frontier” finds itself on the far side of it. That the characters are uniformly unlikable (a given in many noirs) is less of a problem than the fact that they’re uniformly dull.
The primary exception is Lynch, who made an electrifying impression 25 years ago as a junkie Bonnie to Matt Dillon’s Clyde in “Drugstore Cowboy,” and had a brief Hollywood career afterwards, before fading (like so many American actresses over the age of 40) from view. Her return here is a welcome one, and she makes Luanne into the only character here who seems to have a real past, full of dead ends and roads not taken. When she talks about being a “washed-up showgirl” who once screen-tested for the Bette Davis role in “Dark Victory,” you sense that Lynch could just as soon be talking about her own ups and downs in the dream factory. If only she were the woman on the run here, and “The Frontier” could run off with her.