Early on, Frontera seems like one of those Crash or Babel-style narratives of tragic connectivity. Miguel (Michael Peña) crosses the border from Mexico into Arizona, hoping to eventually bring over his pregnant wife Paulina (Eva Longoria); he and his traveling partner encounter Olivia (Amy Madigan), out on a horseback ride; after a tragic accident involving a trio of teenagers, Olivia dies just as her ex-sheriff husband Roy (Ed Harris) arrives on the scene.
This information about what plays out over the movie’s first half-hour might count as a spoiler if it seemed less inevitable—that is, if the characters seemed like subjects of their own stories rather than pieces on a board. There’s a fine line between foreshadowing and telegraphing, and Frontera does plenty of the latter. The characters are too readable, too quickly: Miguel’s irresponsible traveling companion will be trouble. Roy is ambivalent about, but not rabidly prejudiced against, illegal immigrants. One of the three teenage boys has more of a conscience, and the other two will urge him to keep his mouth shut. After these introductory broad strokes, the movie’s editing fails to balance out the storylines, giving some ultra-quick check-ins while others recede entirely.
Frontera, then, turns out to be something a bit less than an interconnected ensemble drama: less convinced of its own epic sweep, but also less compelling than a well-wrought melodrama. That’s not to say director Michael Berry avoids melodrama all together; the movie keeps accelerating in that direction, with anguished cries and swelling music cues. Those outbursts are at odds with the filmmakers’ occasional and interesting feints toward the Western genre. Roy, sensing the closure he’s offered isn’t quite right, begins a quiet investigation into his wife’s death—a retired sheriff unofficially reclaiming his badge. When the movie sets Harris against the sun-struck desert landscape, often on horseback, it’s positioning him as a modern-day cowboy in immigrant-hostile Arizona. The relationship between the taciturn lawman and the hard-working illegal immigrant, interesting as far as it goes here, could’ve been fodder for a mid-level Clint Eastwood movie.
Berry and cowriter Louis Moulinet III also import another, less fortunate Western hallmark: Most of the women in the movie are plot motivators, rather than characters. Madigan’s Olivia must be sacrificed early, and a refreshingly de-glammed Longoria steps into the spotlight for a subplot composed almost exclusively of cruelty and suffering. It may well be realistic, but it doesn’t say anything about the character (or the issue of immigration) except that monstrous behavior exists and victimizes good people on both sides of the border. The complexities of those people are diluted in a movie that’s not quite a functional ensemble but not intimate enough to qualify as a character study.