2008 // USA // Courtney Hunt // September 2, 2008 // Theatrical Print
B - Frozen River is a tale of dreams, or at least what passes for dreams in the bitter winters of far-upstate New York. The film presents us with two women, each a quintessential American survivor in their way. Ray (Melissa Leo) is a white, middle-aged single mom, scraping together a life for her two boys in a cramped manufactured home. Lila (Misty Upham) is a younger Mohawk woman, and also a mother, although her infant son has been wrested from her with the tacit consent of her tribe. When fate brings these two women together, their antagonism seethes, but eventually they embark on a perilous criminal collaboration. First-time director Courtney Hunt's naturalistic story of slush-and-mud desperation on the margins of the American dream is an affecting and uncommonly sensitive depiction of foolish risks taken for all the right reasons.
When Frozen River opens, Ray's husband has recently vanished with the funds that were supposed to secure their new double-wide. Eventually we learn that he is a gambling addict who has pulled such disappearing acts before. This might be the final act. Ray repeatedly checks her phone messages in search of some sign from him. The absent man of the house is often the subject of arguments between Ray and her teenage son T.J. (Charlie McDermott), their quarrels masking a shared understanding that he was a lousy husband and father. With Ray's job in a sad little retail store as the only source of income, the family is teetering on the edge of poverty. The dream of the double-wide is evaporating, the repo men are coming for the television, and meals before paydays consist of popcorn and Tang.
Ray eventually finds her husband's car; the husband is gone, but Lila is behind the wheel. The Mohawk woman is reticent, unwilling to explain herself: "I found it," she shrugs, "The keys were in it." A widow who works in the tribe's dingy bingo parlor, Lila has bad eyesight, a freezing little trailer—Ray's house is extravagant by comparison—and a son who seems to have been kidnapped by her mother-in-law. ("Tribal police don't get involved in that stuff," she explains.) She is also an aspiring smuggler of human cargo: Asian immigrants who seek to enter the U.S. from Canada. The Mohawk reservation straddles the border, rendering it an ideal conduit for trafficking when the river freezes. Unfortunately, Lila lacks a car with a spacious trunk, as well as the skin color that would permit her to pass the state troopers unmolested. As it happens, Ray needs cash for a down payment on the new house, a tantalizing prize that represents a better life for her family. The two work out an arrangement; Ray provides the transportation, Lila the connection. From the beginning, however it's an alliance fraught with tension and calamity. More than that I won't say.
Frozen River possesses a suffocating realism, a sensation partly established by its dismal landscape of white snow, slate sky, and rusting metal. Mostly, however, it emerges from Hunt's deep adoration for Leo and Upham's faces, which she frequently shoots in tight close-ups. Leo's outstanding performance resides deep in her eyes, lined with crow's feet and dollar-store mascara. They glint with the same contradictory hues that were in evidence in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada: despair, warmth, exhaustion, bitterness, and strutting decisiveness. It's such an authentic performance, it almost feel voyeuristic to watch her doing mundane things like preparing for work or broodingly smoking a cigarette.
Upham's smooth, cherubic face is more inscrutable, but her eyes have a squinting moistness that hints at her painful past and frayed sense of self. She doesn't make excuses for her misdeeds, and yet she seems acutely aware of how shabby and sad her life must seem. Many in the tribe treat her with contempt, as though she were some sort of untouchable, and not merely because her illicit side business is an open secret. (A native used car dealer refuses to sell her a vehicle with a trunk; he knows what use she has for it.) There seems to be ugly history there that is never revealed. Lila appears prepared to turn her back on the reservation, but her son keeps her there. She watches him from a distance and sneaks him money in potato chip cans.
Both Lila and Ray exhibit different kinds of defiance: the native woman a quiet apathy and intensely lonely longing; the white woman a scrabbling desperation and sarcastic tongue. Both of these people flare to life when out on smuggling runs. They become bolder and tougher, crackling with wariness. Both are in denial about what they are up to. Ray insists that she is "no criminal." Lila declares that their little enterprise isn't a crime at all, just "free trade between free people." And we believe them, in a way. Smuggling isn't a lifestyle or a thrill for these women, but a means to realize their dreams, no matter how small or simple they might seem to an outsider.
Implausibilities are scattered through Frozen River, mostly in the form of character reversals that don't ring quite true. While the film boasts an icy, anguished sense of lurking doom, it also suffers from a kind of lazy tidiness. Ray emphatically warns T.J. not to tinker with a propane torch, so of course he disobeys—for all the right reasons—and ignites a near-catastrophe. Of course the state trooper that sets Ray on edge at the store turns up later to question her, and of course this is the same trooper that pursues her during a botched smuggling run. Hunt's tone suggests that something momentous, even disastrous, will happen before the credits roll, but her storytelling style leaves little doubt that all will be resolved, one way or another. The suspicious smoothness in its narrative cogs notwithstanding, Frozen River's conclusion is touched with grace and fragile promise. The film's final scene involves a carousel, a family, and a glimmer of hope. Or at least what passes for such things in America.