Ninety-nine percent of all movies have a pretty clear distinction between who is good and who is bad. Within the first fifteen minutes, usually, we know who we want to root for, and who we despise. Not that there is anything particularly wrong with this model of storytelling (it’s strictly taught this way in most screenwriting classes), but the standard can become quite monotonous. That is what makes films like Frozen River so special. In this film, there is no black and white; there is no good guy or bad guy, just people doing what they have to do, and this results in a film of stunning realism and powerful performances.
The film is about Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo), a woman with two children, one a toddler and the other a bitter teenager. Her husband, a gambling addict, has taken the money they needed to pay for their new home, and has abandoned them. In her search to find him, she finds his car in the possession of a Mohawk Indian woman named Lila (Misty Upham). She wants her car back, but Lila convinces her to let her friend look at it because he is willing to pay more for it than it’s worth. On the way there, though, Lila holds Ray hostage as they use her car to transport illegal aliens across the Canadian border.
Ray is able to get out of the situation without getting hurt or losing her car, but Lila takes all of the money. With the pressures of bills, feeding her children, and the down payment on the home she dreams to have (they currently live in a poorly insulated trailer), she returns to Lila to propose becoming partners in transporting illegals. You see, since the border lies on a Mohawk reservation, they’re able to pass freely, but must be careful not to get caught with the illegals in their car.
To get to Canada and back, the two frequently cross a frozen river. It’s said to be frozen so solid that semi-trucks can cross over it. As Ray and Lila continue to run their operation, the jobs start to become more and more dangerous both for their transports and for them. As Lila strives to retrieve her infant daughter in the possession of her meddling mother-in-law, and Ray dreams to get her children a proper home and life, they risk their freedom, and in some cases their lives, trying to allow many foreigners their ticket to America.
The film is the debut for filmmaker Courtney Hunt who also wrote the screenplay. The film may seem to drown in subtleties in moments, but that is only a further attempt to immerse the audience into the film’s ice tundra setting. The film is about two women who do what they can to make sure they can live their lives civilly, and it neither criticizes nor canonizes them. The film simply documents their reactions and allows us to pass our own judgment. Using the prickly locations and wonderful performances, Hunt creates a world of disappointment, but also of hope. She does this without an ounce of sentiment or melodrama, and shows a maturity as a filmmaker far beyond that of a rookie.
One of my favorite aspects of the film is all the minor characters that weave themselves in and out of the movie. For instance, the character of T.J. (Charlie McDermott), Ray’s oldest son. He is angry, angry that his mother won’t allow him to work to help support them, angry that she doesn’t allow him to have responsibilities, but most of all angry that his father has taken off without a word. McDermott doesn’t play the role as a pithy, wordy adolescent, but a deeply disppointed youth, who truly loves his mother. Same could be said for the officer played by Michael O’Keefe. The officer does not come on to bring nonchalant authority like most films, but acts as a responsible police trooper. It’s always fun to watch someone break up the supposed hackneyed stock characters.
But let’s get down to what really makes this film great, and that is the lead performance from Melissa Leo. Leo turned a lot of heads at the Sundance Film Festival earlier with her portrayal of Ray, depicting perfectly the haggard strength and the broken heart. Leo is not a household name, and in fact, didn’t really get notorization until her great turn as Benecio Del Toro’s emotional wife in 21 Grams. Much like that film, Leo’s Ray is a woman stuck in dire straits, depending on a completely undependable man, and finding herself to be her family’s ultimate strength. It’s not a stretch for her to play so weathered, but it’s the warmth and the sincerity, along with the ruined image, that makes her so memorable.
Frozen River was about the only film that had anybody talking at Sundance (though Hamlet 2 and Choke got the biggest paydays), but it struggled to get distribution before being picked up by Sony Classics. With Rachel Getting Married and Synecdoche, New York to come out later this year, Sony Classics looks to have an interesting Fall season. People may generalize River’s handheld style as ‘indie’ (a phrase most people are beginning to despise more than ‘formulaic’), but there is a reason why it rose above all of those other ‘indies’ at Sundance and is now getting a proper distribution: wonderful acting and an overacheiving piece of work from a first-time filmmaker.
Written and Directed by Courtney Hunt