HARDSCRABBLE LIVES POWERFULLY PORTRAYED IN "FROZEN RIVER"
by Roland E. Zwick
Melissa Leo earned a richly deserved Best Actress nomination for her stunning work in FROZEN RIVER playing a woman in upstate New York who's so down-on-her-luck that she resorts to smuggling illegal aliens across the border as a means of paying her bills. Recently abandoned by her ne'er-do-well, compulsive gambler husband and desperate for money to support herself and the two young sons she is struggling to raise, Ray agrees to drive immigrants across the frozen St. Lawrence River that separates the United States from Canada. The hitch is that the route runs directly through a stretch of sovereign tribal land belonging to the Mohawk nation - which essentially means that neither the American nor the Canadian government has any real legal jurisdiction over it.
Not since "Brokeback Mountain" (and, to a lesser extent, "North Country") has an American film focused this intensely on the everyday trials and tribulations of hardworking rural folk. These salt-of-the-earth types, with their lived-in faces and hardscrabble lives, are apparently not what mainstream audiences are searching for when they go to the movies - a fact which likely accounts for the virtual absence of such characters from America's movie screens. But in "Frozen River," writer/director Courtney Hunt shows us what it is like for people who are forced to live paycheck to paycheck, worrying about where their next meal is coming from or how they'll be able to afford presents for their children at Christmas - and for whom happiness might well come in the form of an upgraded doublewide mobile home with a good padding of insulation and a Jacuzzi built right into the middle.
Beyond Ray, there is Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham), a young Mohawk woman who becomes the white woman's partner in crime and who has a child of her own she cannot afford to take care of; and T.J. (Charlie McDermott), Ray's 15-year-old son who misses his father, dotes on his kid brother, and takes his own ill-considered stab at skirting the law in a bid to earn some much needed money for the family. In fact, all these characters are essentially decent people driven to do things they otherwise wouldn't had circumstances not made them so desperate.
This stripped-down morality tale plays out within an appropriately stark, perpetually frozen landscape of muddy snow, leafless trees, weathered clapboard buildings and rusty, broken down trailers. Thus, in the case of "Frozen River," the bleak, wintry setting, with its eternally overcast sky, is every bit as vital to the tone and theme of the film as are the storyline and characters.
As the driving force of the film, Hunt neither condescends to her characters nor sugarcoats the harsh realities of their lives. She allows the drama to unfold at its own unhurried pace, with only a hint or two of potential tragedy in the offing. Leo, in a performance of amazing subtlety and sensitivity, inspires us to not only believe in the reality of Ray's life and circumstances but to care deeply about her fate and the fate of those around her.
Above: Melissa Leo as Ray, working part-time in the dollar store.
Roland E. Zwick teaches high school English in the Los Angeles area. He is a graduate of the USC School of Cinema (History/Criticism). More of his reviews can be found on imdb.com (The Independent Movie Database) and amazon.com.