LOS ANGELES — The contentious policy debate over the U.S.-Mexico border forms the backdrop to "Frontera," a contemporary crime drama that brings together characters from both sides of that porous geographic line. At once understated and slightly pulpy, the film comes down squarely on the side of compassion. It's no polemic, but neither is it as character-driven as it aims to be. To varying degrees, the actors flesh out their underwritten roles, with lead Ed Harris getting the most room to create a nuanced portrait. He's compelling as an ex-lawman in Arizona who's drawn back into investigative mode after a crime hits close to home.
If first-time director Michael Berry only hints at deeper levels of conflict rather than exploring them, he has made a respectable B picture. That's nothing to sneeze at; the feature is involving, and it has a strong sense of place in the rolling ranches and dusty border towns of the Sonoran Desert. The healthy mix of Spanish- and English-language dialogue reflects a sincere interest in bridging the cultural divide. This is enhanced by its topicality and a name cast that includes Michael PeÃ±a and Eva Longoria.
The screenplay by Berry and Luis Moulinet III isn't as loaded as the 1982 Jack Nicholson-starrer "The Border" or as intricately plotted as John Sayles' "Lone Star" (which was set in a town called Frontera), to name a couple of similarly themed films told from the Anglo perspective. There's decidedly more of a point-of-view mix in Berry's film. But the characters are, finally, types rather than full-blooded individuals, and the intended redemption arc has all the complexity of a straight line.
While eschewing a black-and-white depiction of the immigration crisis, the story does revolve around two figures in actual white cowboy hats, men of few words whose willingness to communicate with each other becomes paramount. Harris' rancher Roy is the retired sheriff of fictional Medio County, and PeÃ±a's Miguel is the prime suspect in the murder of Roy's wife, Olivia (an excellent Amy Madigan).
Miguel's trek through treacherous terrain in search of work begins with a propitious encounter with Olivia, who offers practical advice along with water and a blanket. The journey's brutally aborted when the vicious potshots of three American teens, equipped with rifles and a warped sense of purpose, lead to a devastating accident.
The rabbit hole of injustice expands to include Miguel's wife, Paulina (Longoria). Her rash decision to go to Arizona to help her imprisoned spouse serves the movie's purposes but doesn't jibe for a woman who's pregnant and speaks no English. That's no fault of Longoria, who's convincingly determined, vulnerable and all but broken as a victim of a predatory coyote, well played by Julio Cesar Cedillo.
Harris, who can speak volumes with a glance, conveys Roy's bottled-up grief as well as his frustration with the lackadaisical detective work of his successor (a well-cast Aden Young of "Rectify."). Aside from an offhand gripe about "damn Mexicans," Roy is a sympathetic variation on the laconic-cowboy archetype. If he's meant to be a heartless enemy of "illegals" who finds enlightenment, the metamorphosis is painless. PeÃ±a is more limited by the script, but together they bring a dignity to their roles that tempers some of the hokier plot points.
Along with welcome touches of humor, the story embraces dark shadings — U.S. Border Patrol agents on the take, immigrants who aren't avatars of hard work. One of the sharpest (unspoken) observations concerns the ethnic identity of the guilt-wracked boy (Seth Adkins) who fired the fatal round.
As with the overused score, Berry's directorial decisions can be heavy-handed, but he and editor Larry Madaras find the right pace, and Joel Ransom's crisp widescreen lensing (in New Mexico) captures the beauty of the landscape as well as its terror and untold stories.
"Frontera," a Magnolia Pictures release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for "violence including a sexual assault, and brief strong language." Running time: 103 minutes.
MPAA rating definition for PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.