Sunday, August 3, 2014


Here's one of the best movies of the year, a story of Mexican people trying to live in America, and the hardships and humiliations they must endure to get here. Frontera is also about a former Arizona sheriff who believes his wife was killed by a pair of Mexicans, and how his investigation into the murder leads to him to understand his own bigotry, and to gradually open his heart.

The movie starts with Miguel Ramirez (Michael Pena),a rancher, leaving his wife and family to make his way across the Mexican border.  A kind woman (Amy Madigan) rides by on her horse, offers Miguel and his sidekick water and blankets, and then goes on her way. Meanwhile, three local punks open fire on the Mexican pair, shooting above their heads to scare them. The ricochet of the bullets frighten the woman's horse, which sends her falling to the rocky ground. The woman's husband arrives on the scene, sees Miguel hovering over his wife's body, and draws his gun. Before the enraged man can get a round off, Miguel runs into the desert and spends the night hiding in a drainage pipe.

The man's wife dies in his arms. After an ambulance carts her body away, the man goes stoically walks his wife's horse back to their ranch. Halfway home, he is overcome by sadness and collapses to his knees.  This would be moving anyway, but it's doubly so because the man in mourning is played by Ed Harris.

By now Harris should be considered an American treasure. Since the early 1980s, Harris has turned in one beautiful performance after another. He's rarely acknowledged at the Academy Awards (four nominations, no wins), and his movies don't make much noise at the box office, but he's one of our last living movie stars, a man whose presence is as solid as a sledge hammer. Whether he's in a prestige project, an HBO drama, or a direct-to-video quickie, he's always watchable.

Harris is one of those actors who can play urban characters, but also looks  perfectly natural on a horse. Because he often plays characters who are hardheaded, I don't think he's ever given us a false moment. He's a bullet; a bullet can't be phony. But there's always a sense of volcanic emotion in his characters - why else would he have been so drawn to playing Jackson Pollack a few years back? He says a lot of his lines through clenched teeth, and even at age 63 the man still burns with intensity. 

There's a great scene in Frontera where he sits in the dark, listening to an old recording of his wife on their answering machine. He says nothing, and offers no facial expressions, but we get him. We cry for him. 

There are other fine performances here. Pena, whom you may know for his comedy work, is wonderful as Miguel. I like how he makes light of the traditional Mexican machismo at the movie's opening, but eventually has to rely on all of his toughness to survive. The scenes where he gets to know Harris are played perfectly. They play two men who in some ways are cut from the same cloth, hard workers who love their wives. I also liked Michael Ray Escamilla as Miguel's lazy traveling companion. His character, a shifty-eyed guy who could easily turn to a life of crime, could easily turn into a stereotype, but Escamilla gives him some vulnerability.

Eva Longoria is touching as Miguel's gallant wife; her long, harrowing journey to find Miguel in America is one of the movie's many side-plots, and their reunion is one of the film's many highlights. Before she can be with him, though, she winds up locked in a garage in Phoenix with several other Mexicans who have crossed the border. When a real estate agent opens the garage to show the house to prospective buyers, the Mexicans scurry out like rats. The image is strong, slightly cruel, and even though it could be construed as comical, you can't laugh. 

Director Michael Berry, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Louis Moulinet, had a specific vision for this story, shooting much of it from above and from a distance, as if he's observing the actors rather than recording them. It's a smart strategy, for when Harris falls to his knees and cries, it's done from far away, and we don't feel like we're intruding on him. It feels real, rather than an actorly flourish. Like the best works of Clint Eastwood, or the Western novels of Larry McMurtry, Frontera has the feel of an epic but the focus of a character study.  I also liked the cinematography of Joel Ransom. He makes the Mexican border look neither beautiful nor ugly, just hard.


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