Frozen River


Frozen River

Melissa Leo discovers how cold the world can be.

(Sony Classics) Melissa Leo, Misty Upham, Michael O’Keefe, Charlie McDermott, Mark Boone Jr., James Reilly, Jay Klaitz. Directed by Courtney Hunt

When times are hard, our moral compass is tested. How much of our integrity and our ethics will we compromise in order to survive? Sometimes desperate times call for desperate measures.

Ray Eddy (Leo) lives in a trailer with her two kids, 15-year-old T.J. (McDermott) and 5-year-old Ricky (Reilly). They live in Northern New York near the Canadian border and also near the Mohawk reservation. It is the middle of winter and with Christmas approaching, things are pretty bleak.

We’re not just talking about the landscape. Ray’s husband has deserted them, leaving his car one night at the bingo parlor and getting on a bus, presumably to Atlantic City. He has a gambling problem – that would be an understatement – and has taken all of their savings with him. Ray is trying to keep her fingers and toes in the dike but the leaks are beginning to chip away at the dam. They dine nightly on microwave popcorn and Tang.

T.J. is fully aware that his dad has left them in the lurch and isn’t coming back. He wants to drop out of school and find a job, something Ray is adamantly opposed to. She works at the Dollar store part time and scrambles for more hours and maybe a promotion but the paycheck doesn’t quite stretch far enough. Their television set is about to be repossessed, something that Ray wants to avoid because she wants to keep Ricky feeling somewhat secure.

Lila Littlewolf (Upham) works at the bingo parlor and is terribly nearsighted, but can’t afford to buy glasses. She has a baby who is being raised by her mother-in-law, who refuses to allow her contact with her own child; Lila resorts to perching in a tree outside her mother-in-law’s home in freezing weather just to catch a glimpse of her baby.

Lila notices the abandoned car in the parking lot with keys conveniently in the ignition and drives off with it. Ray, who had gone to the bingo parlor to see if she could find some clue to her husband’s whereabouts, sees this and follows Lila home. She confronts the girl and takes the car back. Lila needs the transportation desperately and lets Ray in on a potential payday; if they drive across a frozen river at the Canadian border, they can make $2000 for bringing something back to the U.S. no questions asked. Furthermore Ray is less likely to be stopped than Lila, being white.

Ray is desperate so she agrees. When they arrive at Lila’s contact, Ray is shocked to discover that what they are bringing across the border are illegal aliens – mostly Pakistanis and Chinese. Ray is initially reluctant but it’s too late to back out. Once they successfully make it to the other side, Ray is ready to call their relationship quits.

Money talks however and Lila needs a lot more of it and so does Ray. They decide to make a few more runs, enough for Ray to replace the money that her husband stole for her and for Lila to get her baby back. However, as much as you try to keep your business in the dark, inevitably your actions will emerge into the light. In making things right for her kids, Ray could risk making things even worse for them.

Writer-director Hunt was nominated for an Oscar for her screenplay, as was Leo. While Hunt’s nomination really didn’t get a lot of buzz, Leo attracted a lot of notice from the critics and deservedly so. This is a career-making performance. Leo makes Ray a real, breathing woman, someone who the audience can identify with and root for. As good as Leo’s performance is, I think that despite the nomination Hunt’s script got lost in the shuffle because Leo was given a great character to play with, a woman pushed into a corner by a cold, unfeeling world and doing whatever it takes to keep her family together.

While Upham didn’t get the acclaim Melissa Leo did, nonetheless she delivers a terrific performance that nicely compliments Leo; not to take anything away from Melissa Leo but without Upham’s performance it’s entirely possible her own performance might have been overlooked. Part of what makes the role work as well as it does is the relationship between the women, one born of desperation and pragmatism.

As a director, Hunt captures the environment nicely. Mostly working class and the working poor, she nails what it’s like to live close to the edge where even one paycheck can mean the difference between survival and catastrophe. What the women do is dangerous but Hunt wisely doesn’t focus on that. Instead, she places the emphasis on the characters and the movie is much better as a result. In lesser hands, this would have been a run-of-the-mill drama with elements of suspense. A movie of the week, in other words.

This is a solid indie film that has authenticity oozing out of every frame. You never get the sense that the filmmakers are manufacturing anything; the events and characters seem organic to their environment and the story flows nicely without being formulaic. It can be hard to watch because of the unrelenting grim tone, but then again that’s just the way some people live. Worth checking out for Leo’s performance alone, this is one of those rare movies that come out of left field and attract the right kind of attention. It should also have your attention as well.

WHY RENT THIS: A standout performance by Melissa Leo elevates what could have been a mundane drama into something better. Director Hunt captures the despair and desperation of the characters and their situation nicely.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: An unrelenting grim tone may turn some viewers off.

FAMILY VALUES: A lot of rough language and adult situations may make this a little too much for younger sorts.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: McDermott and Reilly, who play brothers in the film, are cousins in real life.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Men Who Stare at Goats

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