Whether riding horseback on land you own or trying to cross it on foot undetected, there is a harsh reality that grounds "Frontera." Starring Ed Harris, Michael Peña and Eva Longoria, the film is set on a lonely stretch of the Arizona-Mexico border where the desert is as unforgiving as the immigration issues at this drama's overly earnest core.
On both sides of the border, "Frontera" is populated by good and bad alike. Institutions and authorities fail as often as they succeed. Justice and injustice are meted out in equal measure. At every juncture, it's a tossup which way the coin will land.
One man's journey from Mexico to the U.S. — with its promise of economic prosperity and its probability of risk and betrayal — shapes the narrative, tries to tie the loose ends together. But like the journey itself, the film is fraught.
Miguel (Peña) is the one carrying most of the water. A hard-working Mexican cattle drover, he is hoping to get enough of a foothold in the U.S. to bring wife Paulina (Longoria) over before she gives birth to their baby — whose citizenship would be priceless.
As you'd expect, the border crossing is brokered at great expense and filled with uncertainty. Still, Peña infuses Miguel with an interesting mix of resilience and defeat, as if a bad outcome were a given. But he is still determined to try.
The trip is made more difficult by the stranger Miguel is saddled with, Jose (Michael Ray Escamilla), a water-guzzling rube whose many failings pile atop the usual obstacles of border patrols and legal ramifications.
Roy and Olivia, portrayed by Harris and real-life wife Amy Madigan, live on the U.S. side on a sprawling ranch whose fences are frequently breached. Instead of fighting the ongoing undocumented traffic, Olivia sets out each day with bottled water and blankets to pass along to the travelers she encounters.
When Miguel and Olivia's paths cross, the die is cast. Some local toughs on the Arizona side with too much time and too much drink decide to take immigration enforcement into their own hands. A gunshot spooks a horse. An accident ends in a tragedy. Miguel is arrested in the manhunt that follows.
But where there should be tension, there is slack. Tempers that should flare are tamped down. In trying to create a balanced portrait of the conflicts and the ordinary people affected by them, director Michael Berry, who co-wrote the screenplay with Luis Moulinet III, chips away at the authenticity and intensity that an issue-driven film like this sorely needs.
Miguel's one call from the jailhouse gives the film some of the emotional jolt it is lacking. It triggers Paulina's journey north in a desperate bid to save her husband. Her road is far more treacherous and, in a way, far more personal, a pretty woman easy pickings for the less-than-scrupulous coyotes.
Longoria, so etched in memory as one of the more pampered "Desperate Housewives," is nearly unrecognizable. The look of entitlement the actress wore as casually as her designer clothes in the long-running ABC hit has been replaced by Paulina's high anxiety.
Much turns on whether Miguel is found guilty. Roy, a former lawman, finds himself more interested in uncovering the truth than is his replacement, Sheriff Randall Hunt (Aden Young), for complicated reasons that are simplified in implausible ways.
Inside the missteps, you can sense both the promise and the growing pains of a director making his feature debut with a serious eye. But rather than the gravitas Berry is seeking, too much in "Frontera" is like the country it is shot in — so much dust in the wind.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for violence including a sexual assault, and brief strong language
Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes
Playing: Laemmle's Music Hall, Beverly Hills