Some movies seem to be put on this Earth just for actors. You look at the synopsis of a picture, and you think, “Well, it could be OK,” but then you notice who’s in it — maybe a performer you like but haven’t seen in a while, or someone you never liked at all, but the casting piques your curiosity — and you suddenly think it might be something you’d like to see. Michael Berry’s debut feature, Frontera, is very much like a movie that might have been made 25 or 30 years ago, in the good way: A drama about an illegal Mexican immigrant (Michael Peña) who becomes a suspect in the death of the wife of a former Arizona sheriff (Ed Harris), it’s actually about something greater than its mere mechanics. Chiefly, though, Frontera is a showcase for actors: Harris, in particular, does something we’ve seen him do dozens of times before — his character is the laconic man of principle — but he’s so good at it, you warm right up to his rhythms. He’s like a fire you want to get close to. That’s the kind of thing a casually wonderful actor like Harris can do.
Harris plays Roy, a grouchy retiree who now devotes his life to poking around his ranch and, probably, driving his wife, Livy (Amy Madigan, also Harris’s wife in real life), a little crazy. In an early scene, he says good-bye as she takes off to ride her horse along the trails that wind through the property. One trail is particularly appealing, which means everyone seems to like it, especially, as Roy notes, those “damn Mexicans.” Earlier, we’ve seen young husband and father Miguel (Peña) leaving his pregnant wife, Paulina (Eva Longoria), and young daughter in Mexico for at least the second time: He’s headed back to the States, illegally — he’s already been deported once, but he can’t help trying again. His father-in-law has persuaded him to take along a ne’er-do-well friend of the family, Jose (Michael Ray Escamilla). At the beginning of the long trip through the desert, Jose greedily drains his water bottle and demands that Miguel refill it from his own supply. There’s no doubt this guy spells trouble.
But not as much trouble as stupid white guys: A bunch of bad-apple teenagers persuade their possibly more principled friend Sean (Seth Adkins) to grab his rifle and head off to a local ridge. They assure him they’re not going to do boring stuff like shoot at cactus. The less-than-innocent fun they get up to launches a chain of events that ruins lives, and, of course, there’s always a way to prove that “damn Mexicans” are to blame.
Frontera riffs on a number of contemporary political realities: The distrust and condescension Americans feel toward our neighbors south of the border, the prevalence of vile coyotes who prey upon Mexican citizens desperate to cross over, and the all-too-common tendency of law enforcement to see itself as being above the law. Berry, who co-wrote the script with Louis Moulinet, isn’t afraid to use melodrama as a tool to highlight injustice. The movie’s structure and approach are so straightforward you might be tempted to call them simplistic, and there are places where Berry stretches plausibility. But the very un-flashiness of Frontera makes it effective. This is, unapologetically, a modern western, an updating of the same kind of veiled social statements that Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher made in the 1950s with movies like The Naked Spur and The Tall T, movies that used codes of the old west to reflect new states of confusion and unrest. As in those pictures, the landscape of Frontera is its own world of beauty and ruthlessness: Cinematographer Joel Ransom captures the seeming paradox of skies that stretch on forever and countries that are, along some stretches, divided by little more than a flimsy fence — though even these fences can be nearly insurmountable for outsiders. In one chilling, beautiful shot, Miguel and Jose pick their way along a trail littered with discarded clothes and empty water bottles, the detritus of weary, dejected travelers, everything bleached by the sun to a state of despair.
The actors live up to the landscape. Peña comes off as a human being, not just a Symbol of Struggle. He’s especially good in a late scene with Longoria (who gives a delicately calibrated performance), one in which he shrugs off the stereotype of the macho Mexican with a simple, touching gesture. And it’s wonderful to see Madigan and Harris sparring and scowling, their characters showing for one another the gruff affection of many longtime married couples. They have just one brief scene together, but it sets the groundwork for everything else in Harris’s performance. As Roy, he’s thoughtful, reticent, a little bit tortured beneath that all-American, deep-blue-eyed façade. This is a man who wants to do the right thing and comes around to it slowly but definitively, the way a horse takes an amble around the paddock before realizing that what he really needs to do is run.