Ed Harris is one of those living legends of Hollywood, with a timeless quality about him that makes you feel as if he acted alongside John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart. He feels like a contemporary of Robert Duvall and Clint Eastwood, but he’s 20 years younger.
The guy is ageless, and as Gravity slyly proved, he is and always will be mission control, as ubiquitous now as in the 1990s. Not many people have more gravitas and presence than Ed Harris, and he puts that gruff, badass, cowboy persona to good use in Frontera, a Mexican/U.S. border drama from writer-director Michael Berry.
Frontera isn’t preachy, isn’t in-your-face political, and thankfully doesn’t present the U.S./Mexico border situation in black and white terms.
Frontera opens by introducing us to both families on either side of the border. The Ramirez family celebrates their abuela’s birthday, before Miguel (Michael Peña) sets off for America, determined to get a good job this time, and enable his wife Paulina (Eva Longoria as we’ve never seen her before) to give birth in the U.S. Miguel is accompanied on his journey through the desert by Jose (Michael Ray Escamilla), a shifty family friend (yet also a stranger) brought along as a promise to his father, a decision that will haunt Miguel.
On the other side, Livy (Amy Madigan) prepares for a horseback ride through “the wash,” a favorite trail on their property for Mexicans trying to sneak into the country. Her husband, Roy (THE Ed Harris), bemoans her decision, but there’s nothing he can do to stop Livy. Much like in real life (Harris and Madigan have been married since 1983), the two have long ceased arguing, enjoying a rare shorthand, and mutual respect for their unique stubbornness.
We know, and Frontera knows you know, that we’re heading toward inexorable tragedy, and the circumstances are infuriating, sad and awful. In a frustrating, egregious accident, Livy is killed, Miguel ends up in prison, and Roy is forced not only to grieve his wife’s passing, but figure out what exactly happened out there. While Sheriff Randall Hunt (Aden Young) says he has it under control, he clearly doesn’t, and Roy knows it. After all, Roy was Sheriff until he retired (because Ed Harris has been Sheriff in every town in the country). Roy must balance his anger and heartbreak with his longstanding conviction for the truth, with an obviously innocent Miguel stuck in the middle. This movie veers dangerously close into former lawman takes law into his own hands™ territory, but because the events took place on Roy’s land, it’s mostly avoided. What’s more interesting and powerful, is how easy it would be to forget everything, to pin the crimes on Miguel and move on. It’s clear that sort of thing has happened before, and will happen again, but not under Ed Harris’ watch.
Or Paulina’s. Miguel’s wife is devastated, and uses every last bit of money her family has to enlist the help of a Coyote (Julio Cedillo) to get her across the border to help Miguel. It’s a flawed plan, almost fatally so; even if she gets across, what can she do? But that doesn’t matter. Like in the opening, we know the characters are walking into a trap, and yes, everything goes terribly wrong. For awhile, Frontera is startlingly dark and brutal, sometimes jarringly so. Whatever horrible things you think Paulina will endure getting over to Mexico…she does, and Eva Longoria is fearless. Whereas Ed Harris feeds on his persona, Eva Longoria sheds it completely, as understated and authentic a performance as there is in the movie. Paulina is bold, naive, strong, delicate, frightened and fearless, as complicated as the situation she finds herself in.
Frontera is a movie filled with worst-case scenarios, but it never extinguishes hope, thanks to the performances by Harris, Longoria and Michael Peña (who will at least be nominated for an Oscar someday). Sometimes the film feels forced, the danger when the inciting incident occurring because of three barely supporting characters who deserve absolutely no empathy (not to mention Jose and the Coyote). Sometimes it feels like Miguel and Paulina are adrift in a cruel, cosmic joke, manipulated by a malignant puppeteer, each situation delivering a fresh case of misery. But, that’s precisely the point; there are no higher stakes than the Border and what it represents for the Ramirez family. Because of its cast, Frontera always feels real and authentic, even with a decidedly Hollywood ending.