2008, R, 97 min. Directed by Courtney Hunt. Starring Melissa Leo, Misty Upham, Michael O'Keefe, Charlie McDermott, Mark Boone Jr., James Reilly.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Sept. 5, 2008
In upstate New York near the Canadian border, Ray Eddy (Leo) and her family eke out a meager existence, although it’s true that life’s demands are also eking out the Eddy family nickel by nickel. Ray works part-time at the local dollar store even though her pip-squeak boss refuses to put her on fulltime; she feeds her two boys popcorn and Tang for meals until the next paycheck comes along; her greatest ambition is to replace her family’s tiny trailer home with a nice doublewide. Yet even that dream of upward mobility crumbles at the film’s start when she realizes that her gambling-addicted husband (never seen on film) has absconded with the down payment and their beat-up old car. The snowy, gray, hardscrabble setting provides a fitting match for Ray’s emotional core, which seems protected from complete erosion by brambles as wild and untamed as the tangle of hair on her head. Eventually, she discovers the car abandoned by her husband at a bingo hall on the Mohawk reservation, a discovery that brings her into contact with Lila (Upham), who has assumed possession of the vehicle. A taciturn, trailer-dwelling Mohawk woman, Lila has designs on using the car to transport illegal immigrants across the frozen St. Lawrence River from Canada to the bordering reservation, which is off-limits to any law enforcement but the tribal authority. (Based on real patterns of human smuggling in the area, the film also earns distinction for its uncommon attention to border crossings that don’t involve the Rio Grande.) Lila sees the potential in using a white woman to drive the car and tricks Ray into performing the deed, but once Ray grasps what’s going on, she sees only the dollar signs and the chance to buy each of her kids a Christmas present. The centerpiece action of the movie becomes the treacherous journeys across the frozen ice, where one false move could sink them forever into the bowels of the earth, leaving behind no trace of themselves but their bad credit. These sequences are tense, eerie, go-for-broke acts of courage driven by desperation. Not an ounce of sentimentality or weakness is evident in these sequences or anywhere else in the movie until the final denouement on Christmas Eve. Credit these two actresses, especially the amazing Leo, for capturing the emotional austerity of these characters without obscuring their humanity. Leo, best known for her role as Sgt. Kay Howard on TV’s Homicide and astonishing supporting turns in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and 21 Grams, here proves her ability to carry an entire movie and make us yearn for more. Frozen River grew out of a short film director Hunt made with the same actresses and subject matter, so the finished feature surely benefits from its long fermentation process. It received the Grand Jury Prize at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. If this description makes the film sound like some bleakly Marxist “women’s” film, note that none other than Sundance dramatic jury member Quentin Tarantino has waxed rhapsodic on the merits of this film. Frozen River skates matter-of-factly on thin ice. (See Screens feature "The Heat Is On," Sept. 5, for an interview with Melissa Leo.)