Frozen River

(USA - 2008)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Melissa Leo, Misty Upham, Charlie McDermott, Michael O'Keefe
Genre: Drama/Crime/Thriller
Director: Courtney Hunt
Screenplay: Courtney Hunt
Cinematography: Reed Morano
Composer: Peter Golub & Shahzad Ismaily

Courtney Hunt’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner is the sort of modest little film that’s seems to overachieve, yet is not nearly as good as it could have been. The strength of the film is the career performance of Melissa Leo, certainly one of the couple best actress performances of 2008. In a film that never penetrates the surface of its various hot button issues, Leo somehow manages to bare her soul without actually doing anything particular. Leo’s just abandoned Ray Eddy quietly weeps alone, but focuses on her character’s pride and fierce dignity, underplaying her fear and desperation in the presence of others not only to deny it to them, but also herself to provide some sort of unrealistic hope that might give her a reason to keep plowing forward.

Ray’s gambling addict husband is unseen, but he casts a specter over every frame due to her fierce struggle to keep the family afloat and their older son T.J’s (Charlie McDermott) rebellious drive to work in the father’s place directly being linked to his absence, neglect, and irresponsibility. Ray’s dream is to get the family into a double-wide trailer home, but with her husband making off with their meager savings just before Christmas, she’s once again unable to make the payment necessary for them to leave the mobile home with her, not to mention ready to the flatscreen TV her husband whimsically bought on an installment plan repossessed. Forced to subsist on an extremely nutritional Married with Children diet of Tang and popcorn, the film is not about a very humble version of the American Dream - that fantasy slipped away long ago - but rather the dilemma faced by those who work but still lack the resources to provide sustenance for their families. Outside of the world of Hollywood movies where even the high schoolers who don’t work drive shiny new sports cars, even people with desire, courage, guile, and a stubborn refusal to surrender are not always able to get by.

Lila (Misty Upham), an even poorer and more outcast Mohawk girl who steals Ray’s car after she pursues her husband onto the local gambling grounds, is very much Ray’s younger counterpart. Also without husband (he died) and any viable means of supporting her child (who the elders decided was better off without her) in part due to being nearly blind (she can’t tell a $50 from a $20 but can see tracks on the ice in the dark), she has turned to taking advantage of the fact Mohawk territory is on both sides of the NY/Canada border, smuggling immigrants across. It’s too painfully clear that while this may work in the short term, for a number of reasons - including the river potentially not being frozen enough - it’s a very desperate and dangerous course of action.

One of the main points Frozen River makes is that economic crisis can unite anyone, but unfortunately the movie depicts this solidarity in a typically cliched manner, with the women at each other’s throats at the beginning due to the obvious differences (mostly native/white resentment), but bonding over the course of time until they adapt each into their support system because they simply can’t get by being islands. I suppose the sort of person that shoots their husband in the foot for blowing the grocery money on legal gambling isn’t likely to win a lot of popularity contests, but for the convenience of the plot it seems as though Ray and her two boys have about one (also unseen) friend between them. In any case, the one difference between the social realism of Frozen River and your typical buddy film is they don’t form a friendship in any traditional sense. There is no basis of similar tastes or enjoyment of one another’s company, in fact they barely utter a word that isn’t related to completing the task at hand.

Shot in a white-gray pallet utilizing the vast, icy, dead of winter landscapes as the backdrop for the unsentimental tale of hoping in the absence of hope, Reed Morano’s cinematography is quite impressive. That being said, one of the major problems with Frozen River is it lacks any real regional flavor or character development. Whereas a film like Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, also dealing with a poor no hoper and depicting a culture we don’t normally see truly felt unique and original through accentuating those aspects in favor of the plot, Courtney Hunt doesn’t get any real mileage out of the relationship between the Caucasian and Native American smugglers because she doesn’t allow them to develop as real people occupying a rarely filmed barren region. Hunt instead relies upon the shopworn plot of fighting then working together, getting easy money, enduring a few ridiculously predictable scares, and ultimately getting caught during the one last score they need in order to be able to get out. We don’t really know much about the characters beyond they are poor and the locale beyond it’s miserably cold, so where Barnett’s film seemed intensely personal, Hunt’s seems narrowly focused to the point of being impersonal.

The decision to keep inserting time limits has a negative effect. Though it increases the importance and intensity of the next run, the film winds up dealing solely in tension, eliminating anything that would give the characters any real character. Implied hostility and unsentimental minimalism are positives, but we don’t need everything in the film to be functionary. The result of that mistake is a shallow thriller keeps popping up and threatening to replace the intended meaningful drama, undermining the subtlety of the performances (Upham and McDermott also acquit themselves quite admirably) and cinematography through the blatant obviousness of the plot devices.



* Copyright 2009 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *