Frozen River

Frozen River

Film review by: Witney Seibold


            One of the first shots in “Frozen River” is an extreme close-up of Melissa Leo’s face. There seems to be an eternity of hurt etched into every unwanted wrinkle. Her very subtly pained, smoke-encrusted mask speaks volumes of her hardened, trailer-park, ashtray life. She lights up a cigarette and takes a drag. Without changing expression, tears tumble from her eyes. This is Ray, a woman who has been denied her double-wide trailer home twice, has been passed up for promotion at her retail job for two years, can barely keep tabs on her at-risk teenage son, and who has been callously abandoned by her gambling-addict husband.

            To make ends meet, she begins acting as a courier for illegal immigrants.

            By the end of the film, you will love her.

            “Frozen River,” written and directed by first-timer Courtney Hunt, is an aggressively dreary film. It takes place in the boonies of New York during the dead of December, so the very landscape is gray and dirty. The air seems to contain the stink of truck exhaust and rotten wet leaves. Ray is a miserable soul who perpetually lives on the brink of financial ruin. It is also a moving, touching, and ultimately inspiring film.

            The story: Ray discovers her deadbeat husband’s car outside of a Mohawk rez casino. She waits for him, only to discover that a Mohawk woman named Lila (Misty Upham) has taken the car, not as a theft but because it was seemingly abandoned. Lila will not return the car, as her eyes are going, and she needs it to get around on the rez. Ray pulls a gun. Lila takes the gun. Lila needs Ray’s help. They can in Ray’s other car (with the push-button trunk), drive across the frozen river, across the northern border, pick up immigrants who have snuck into Canada, and smuggle them back into New York. Cops won’t stop them because Mohawk country has no border patrol.

            The two women hate each other, fight, and are constantly threatening to shoot one another. However, Ray discovers that the $1200 cash she gets paid for her services may just be enough to get the home of her dreams, buy the bath products she needs, buy the toys and treats her 5-year-old son desires, and prevent her 15-year-old son (Charlie McDermott) from going to work as a credit card thief. Lila, we eventually discover, needs the money to get back her one-year-old son from some callous relative who have absconded with him.

            No one in this film is conventionally likable; Ray is flustered, bitter, racist, and often mean. Lila is desperate, weak, and equally mean. The bosses are cruel, the moneymen all cruel, life is generally cruel to these people.

            And yet… and yet…

            Melissa Leo gives such an amazing performance, that she allows Ray to transcend her pettiness. By the end of the film, we feel Ray’s passions so strongly, that we begin to root for her, and even empathize with her. She may be low class and desperate, she may have made some horrible decisions in her life, and she may be turning to illegal activities to make ends meet, but her dreams are so palpable, her passions so strong, that we feel the need for her to succeed in her endeavors. When the time comes for her to behave selflessly and perhaps make some serious sacrifices, it’s no hackneyed tearjerker moment. It’s a moment when someone has earnestly weighed their options, considered the ease of the choices, and decided to do what they feel is right (Sorry to be so vague, but there is a level of suspense in the film I do not wish to spoil).

            Leo is able to convey the years of misery, and the faint glimmers of hope in Ray’s life with a mere expression. It would be an injustice if the Academy failed to recognize her come Awards season. Misty Upham gets less screen time, but her performance is no less impressive.

            Since “Frozen River” is a smaller indie film, it also has the advantage of real suspense. In a Hollywood film (which would have cast, I dunno, Kim Basinger in the role of Ray) we would see the characters in peril, but we would know for sure that they everything would turn out o.k. in the end. When we see characters in peril or making bad choices in “Frozen River,” we feel that things could very well end up badly. In some cases, they do.

            See “Frozen River.” See it for the desperation and the hope, but especially for Melissa Leo and Misty Upham. It’ll be hard to catch better performances this year.


Published in: on August 18, 2008 at 5:56 pm  Leave a Comment  

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