Baby, it's cold outside.
The family at the heart of The High Frontier (original title: Na granicy) doesn't feel very warm toward each other, though. As the movie begins and a father and his two sons drive deeper and deeper into the woods, the snow falling and the car radio dissolving into static, there is no love lost between them, as a roadside incident clearly demonstrates.
The story follows, almost entirely, men and how they deal with each other. To a man, they are tone deaf about their own shortcomings. These are men for whom the winter weather is an inconvenience, yet it's also a reflection of their emotions: very, very chilly. When a woman enters the picture, the men have no idea how to treat her, except as a man with different body parts.
Before that happens, a not quite nuclear family has been profiled in brief. Mateusz (Andrzej Chyra) is the father; he is a stern, no-nonsense type with his sons, insisting that they act like men. Older son Janek (Bartosz Bielenia) is a teenager, maybe 16 or 17, who chafes against his father's discipline and leans more toward gentility, though he's fully capable of great bluster. Younger son Tomek (Kuba Henriksen) is maybe 13 or 14; he constantly battles his older brother and is more inclined to obey their father without question.
When they reach their initial destination, a border patrol station, things begin to come into focus. Mateusz formerly worked as a border patrol guard and has been on a leave of absence for the past year. (We can assume that something happened to his wife, though it's never revealed.) Lech (Andrzej Grabowski), the station supervisor and also a friend, tells Mateusz to take a look around and see how he might feel about returning.
So the trip is more about Mateusz than anything else. Does he have the fortitude to resume his position as a guard? Will he leave his sons behind in the city, perhaps in the care of a relative? The broken family makes their way through the snow on foot to a large cabin, formerly a prison of some kind for illegal immigrants. They spend an uneasy and unpleasant evening together, again demonstrating Mateusz's rage against the cards that fate has dealt him.
The next day, things change. A stranger (Marcin Dorocinski) stumbles through the snow toward the cabin, babbling about 'having to leave the others behind' and collapsing out of exhaustion. Naturally, Mateusz is alarmed, and his old instincts kick in. He dumps the still-unconscious stranger into a bunk bed, chains him up and gives the key to Janek. 'Whatever you do, don't unlock him,' Mateusz instructs before heading out to look for 'the others' who may still be stranded in the frozen woods.
From there, the tension steadily ratchets upward. Though the broad outlines are easy enough to guess, the brooding atmosphere more than maintains interest. Wojciech Kasperski wrote and directed and the film succeeds quite well as a mucho macho experience.
Until, that is, it enters the home stretch and starts to stumble on the very same macho overindulgences that served it so well, giving in to its own brutality. Perhaps the third act of the movie could be read as a commentary on the first two acts, showing the consequences of such sheer stupidity. Or maybe it just loses its balance.
In any event, The High Frontier represents very strong filmmaking that quickly becomes absorbing and gut-tightening. And its politics surely resonate beyond its setting of the border between Poland and Ukraine.
The film screened will screen at Fantastic Fest again on Wednesday, September 28.