BINGE-R #13: Frontier + Private Detective Picks
Streaming Service: Netflix
Availability: All six episodes now streaming
Frontier, the new historic drama just debuted on Netflix, begins as it means to go on: two desperate men begging for their lives have their throats cut and a third is repeatedly bludgeoned to emphasise the point. “This is not your land,” says the hulking perpetrator, Declan Harp (Jason Momoa), and that’s as subtle as it gets on this show, which is set in what is now Canada but was in the late 18th century the realm of Britain’s quasi-official Hudson Bay Company (HBC). In the name of the lucrative fur trade lives are taken and wrathful words are often spoken – subtlety, however, is in short supply.
Momoa, who played Khal Drogo in season one of Game of Thrones, establishes Harp as a force of nature who is half-indigenous First Nations and half-Irish. With everyone vying for advantage and taking ready resort to bloody blades, it’s not hard to see the GoT influence, especially when the retinue of the HBC’s calculating new governor Lord Benton (Alun Armstrong and his menacing eyebrows), includes a pair of prostitutes who stand ready to supply the cheap titillation sexposition requires. Somewhere a writer is trying to figure out how to get dragons onto this show.
An Irish thief pressganged by Benton, Michael Smyth (Landon Liboiron), learns lessons for the audience, although there isn’t a great deal of historic detail dispensed. The series Frontier most reminds me of is Sons of Anarchy, where a group of bikers get into a fight, rehash the plot, and then set off to do much the same again. The narrative is full of competing groups (Scottish traders, and thankfully well-sketched First Nations tribes) and scheming adversaries (an ambitious American businessman, a crafty female inn proprietor), but the storytelling is too thick with testosterone and nearly always reductive.
Introductory quotes about inequality at the start of each episode from the likes of Ice Cube are meant to establish the program’s contemporary relevance, but Frontier is so indistinct it lacks any real identity. It doesn’t help that despite the HBC overseeing more than 10% of North America, every character seems to exist no more than few hours travel away from any other. The repetitive establishing shots and handful of period locations start to feel claustrophobic, crying out for some panoramic landscapes and a sense of possibility. The unimpressive Frontier is completely boxed in.
>> Bonus Binge: For a compelling take on 19th century frontier life, capitalism’s crude development, and striking characters, consider the three seasons of the outstanding western Deadwood on Stan.
PRIVATE DETECTIVE PICKS
Almost as soon as the talkies took over movies private detectives were on the screen, with Hollywood gumshoes adapted from the novels of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. The snap of their interrogatory dialogue and salty femme fatale exchanges transfixed audiences, and once film noir added German Expressionism and post-WWII cynicism to the mix the private eye became a fascinating and flawed protagonist. Sadly, almost none of those Golden Age films are currently available to stream here, but these three selections each offer a distinct take on watching the detectives.
The Long Goodbye (Stan, 1973, 113 minutes): “I’m from a long time ago,” says Elliott Gould’s Philip Marlowe, a dishevelled Los Angeles private eye, in Robert Altman’s update of Raymond Chandler’s classic crime novel. Left diffident by his fellow Californians and enjoying his best conversations with a choosy cat, this post-counterculture P.I. gets drawn into the affairs of a friend who committed suicide in Mexico after Marlowe loyally helped him skip town. Altman’s camera wanders and Marlowe makes amusing small talk with gangsters and cops alike, but he’s a determined advocate for what he believes in and the film builds from a hazy mystery to a powerful conclusion.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit (Netflix, 1988, 104 minutes): A loopy, innovative mash-up of the dogged private eye flick and an alternate history of Los Angeles where the cartoon characters step off the set, this madcap comic fantasy rewrites the mismatched buddy genre by pairing a toon-despising private investigator, Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) with madcap movie star Roger Rabbit (voiced by Charles Fleischer). Like Chinatown, it’s about how greed created modern Los Angeles – substitute freeways for water rights – and the humour flows from the immersive world that director Robert Zemeckis creates. Some of the scenes are populist samizdat, such as a nightclub act that memorably unites corporate adversaries Donald and Daffy Duck.
Gone Baby Gone (Netflix, 2007, 113 minutes): Boston private investigators and partners, Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan) and Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) are fearful they’re out of their depth in this brooding mystery about the search for the missing daughter of manipulative local spitfire Helene (an unforgettable Amy Ryan). Trying to stay both calm and alive, the pair look for answers in a series of insular communities – south Boston, the city’s police force – that eventually test their moral beliefs. Ben Affleck’s first – and best – film as a director presents the private investigator as a means of last resort, and someone who will carry the weight of what they uncover.
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