Danielnothing's Blog

Film Review: FROZEN RIVER

Posted in Uncategorized by danielnothing on January 24, 2010

The very first image we see in Frozen River, the debut feature from Courtney Hunt, is a close-up shot of the self-same body of solid water, the St Lawrence River, New York State: a craggy expanse of thick, white ice stretching off into the middle distance. A vast, hulking presence in the centre of the movie, the river serves two purposes. It’s a metaphor for lives in stasis, things that were once free-flowing and lively, now slowed and made barren by a grim, forbidding north-eastern winter. It is also the very thing that makes the events of the plot possible, a unique gift from Mother Nature to those who traffic human beings from Quebec over the US/Canadian border. Such heady, ripped-from-the-headlines subject matter might be the perfect fit for an existential action movie, something a young Clint Eastwood or Harrison Ford might fashion into a vehicle for them to learn about life and the futility of violence while chasing unscrupulous smugglers across the picturesque tundra. Frozen River is as far from that imaginary movie as one could get.

For one thing, our hero is a heroine, the incongruously named Ray Eddy, played by Melissa Leo (who you may remember from the excellent Homicide: Life on the Streets). We meet Ray in the direct aftermath of catastrophe: her gambling-addict husband has vanished with all their savings, leaving her to raise their two sons alone in a small trailer. Pushing 50 with her red hair turning grey, her fingernails bitten to the quick and her tattoos getting wrinkly and faded, she looks like someone on a collision course with something bad. Repo men are after her big-screen TV, her trailer and her self-respect, and her job working at a convenience store for a just-post-adolescent asshole who won’t promote her ain’t gonna cut her any big cheques any time soon. Happening across hubby’s abandoned car by chance leads her to the middle of nowhere and a caravan occupied by Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham), a surly, threatening Mohawk Indian woman who coerces Ray into driving her across the frozen St Lawrence for an illicit job that pays big money. Soon Ray and Lila are ferrying two illegal Chinese immigrants in the trunk of the car across the white wasteland for a few thousand bucks. Ray narrowly avoids being ripped off, and is soon home in time to pay the TV repossession men with a smile.

Gradually realising that fate has dealt her a way to pay off her debts and begin fashioning a better life for her and her children, she is soon back at Lila’s caravan asking for another job. And so an awkward, mistrustful partnership is formed, based on mutual need (Lila needs Ray’s car, Ray needs Lila’s experience and contacts). And Lila has her own reasons for doing this dangerous work, one which she wants kept secret from her new white partner. Meanwhile Ray’s restless, whiny older teenage son TJ (Charlie McDermott), sick of popcorn and juice every meal, has started his own little phone-phishing scam back at the trailer, and there’s a kindly but stern state trooper keeping his eye on the Eddy family’s comings and goings.

All of this may scream ‘earnest Sundance award winner’, and that would be a half-fair assessment, but Frozen River goes above and beyond the remit of a lot of films of it’s genre. For one thing, the sense of place is masterfully evoked, Reed Dawson Morano’s stark, unvarnished cinematography capturing both the beauty and the horror of wintry upstate New York flawlessly. For this is a film about nothing if not environment, and how it shapes people’s drives and relationships. Character study it may be, but it is also a genuinely involving drama (‘thriller’ may be going too far) in which every revelation, small or large, is important and involving .It holds the attention like few films I’ve seen recently and makes you care deeply for characters who are at first unappealing simply by spending a little time to get to know them: unlike other crime genre movies, there are no grand schemes or dreams of power and glory fuelling these people: .Ray wants a bigger trailer and some money to provide for her family, things she speaks of with the same quiet, wistful glow that some people have when talking about a dream home or the holiday of a lifetime: Lila wants a chance to be a mother to her infant, snatched from her by her dead husband’s family out of spite . Money is an ever-present motif, coins being meticulously counted out to pay for gas, or to be placed in the hands of kids on their way to school. The double-wide trailer, the big-screen TV, the Hot Wheels car set for Christmas, these modest acquisitions take on a special aura in this harshest of all economic realities.

Midway, the film dips briefly and unexpectedly into outright thriller (almost horror movie) territory, a midnight run on Christmas Eve becoming a frantic, frightening search in the icy darkness for a duffel bag with a very special cargo, the pace and lighting recalling the dryer, crueller work of the Coen Brothers, especially, Fargo or Blood Simple. Even here, with life and limb at stake (or in the final, fateful trip across the ice that forms the films’ climax) the film never gets hysterical or histrionic. The tightness in the chest we feel as we watch is the very same gut-wrench we feel when things are coming apart in front of us in life.

If the film has any flaws they are minor. A mid-movie flirtation with magic realism stays just this side of cloying, as does the somewhat too-neatly-tied ending, and some half-hearted, late-in-the-game gunplay feels like the sort of thing a studio might impose just to have gunfire in the movie’s trailer. But these are very minor quibbles. Leo and Upham are both outstanding, the chatty Leo all running eye make-up and barely concealed nervous tension, the terse Upham as icy and unfriendly as the frozen river they drive on.  Mainstream cinema itself being something of a barren wasteland for women who don’t conform to Jessica Alba’s youth or bland good looks, it’s great to see a performer of Leo’s pedigree getting to create a character from the ground up, and to see Upham’s unconventional frame and ethnicity occupying a central place in a film where neither aspect is patronised. This isn’t the stuff of Hollywood stars uglying up, dressing down and putting a hicksville twang into their accent to secure awards, this has the genuine heft of real lives observed, of people getting on with what they have to in order to keep going.

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