Directed by: Wojciech Kasperski
Cast: Bartosz Bielenia, Andrzej Chyra, Marcin Dorocinski, Kuba Henriksen
The High Frontier opens with Janek (Bartosz Bielenia) travelling to an abandoned Polish base isolated in the frozen wilderness with his border guard father Mateusz (Andrzej Chyra) and little brother Tomek (Kuba Henriksen) for some male bonding.
Along the way, Mateusz strikes a deer, wounding it. He orders Janek to kill the animal, that the kill will make him a man, thus setting up the film’s motif, being a man above all…
…which hasn’t worked out for Mateusz, as Janek sees him drunk, whimpering, haunted by past mistakes soon after.
At the base, they meet Konrad (Marcin Dorocinski) stumbling through the woods, so weak he can barely speak, though he mentions some people he “left behind.” This being human trafficker country and all, and after finding a gun on the now-unconscious Konrad, Mateusz makes the enlightened decision to leave his sons alone with the smuggler, now handcuffed (poorly) to a bed, to investigate.
Thus, director Wojciech Kasperski’s well-crafted character study ensues! Or, almost.
Konrad wakes up, talks his way out of the handcuffs then starts acting crazy. Except how nuts is Konrad really? He doesn’t seem overly murderous, despite his vocation. We learn from him that the border guards – and Mateusz, presumably – have dabbled in human trafficking as well.
The film’s high point comes when Konrad threatens to kill Tomek if Janek doesn’t surrender on the count of three. The scene plays out with a subtle surprise, showing careful layers to both Janek and Konrad, but the film never revisits the moment, and everyone seems to forget that it ever happened.
Dorocinski does his best with a poorly written role. A thriller is only as good as its villain, and Konrad is best when he’s quietly threatening, almost regretful, thus making us reconsider his motivations.
But at some point while making this film (possibly during a reshoot?) Kasperski forgot that being ambiguous is not the same as being confusing.
Without provocation, Konrad goes full-on evil madman, even threatening to burn the family alive. Why, when just fifteen minutes earlier we saw how conflicted he was about murdering innocents, does he suddenly become a bloodthirsty pyromaniac?
“Because thrillers need crazy villains!” shouted Kasperski, I assume, while shooting the film, much to the befuddlement of the crew.
With Konrad’s psycho turn, Kasperski unravels the muted characterization that made the first half of the film solid. We learn about these people through their little moments, their body language during tense silences. Then, by the climax, we get a wacko screaming about how he’s going to burn everyone alive.
The masculinity theme gets lost in the process, even with the ending’s requisite callback to the opening scene. It felt tacked on, almost superfluous after the mess that preceded it.
It’s like Kasperski didn’t know if he wanted to make a character study or a thriller, then decided to jam it all together, hoping it would stick. It almost does, but not quite.