Sunday 15 December 2019

Movie Review: Frozen River (2008)

A crime drama, Frozen River is a low-key yet tense exploration of two mothers forging an unlikely bond under extreme economic hardship.

Christmas time is approaching in frigid upstate New York. Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo) is a working class mom struggling to raise her two boys, 15 year old T.J. (Charlie McDermott) and five year old Ricky. Her gambling-addicted husband has just abandoned the family, taking with him money set aside to buy a new double-wide trailer. While out looking for her husband, Ray meets and initially clashes with smuggler and car thief Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham), a member of the Mohawk nation.

Lila lives alone, having lost custody of her infant son at birth. Recognizing that Ray desperately needs money, Lila introduces her to the people smuggling trade across the frozen river straddling the border between Canada and the United States but within Mohawk territory. Money starts to roll in just in time for Christmas, but with state troopers starting to get suspicious and the human cargo business rife with risks and murky characters, life for both Ray and Lila gets ever more complicated.

An uncompromising sojourn to rarely explored territory, Frozen River seeks the warm flickers of humanity attempting to survive frigid physical and economic realities. The frozen St. Lawrence River presents an intimidating but open border opportunity rife with possibilities and risks, and for two women with almost nothing to lose, quick profits from makeshift human smuggling runs are impossible to resist.

But Ray and Lila are both mothers trying to safeguard or reclaim the sanctity of their families, and rather than motives of greed or power, director and writer Courtney Hunt is interested in the plight of ordinary women reduced to choices of starvation, ostracism or felony. Frozen River avoids any notions of lecturing or juvenile dot connections. The dire economic circumstances in the form of derelict housing, missing responsible males, microwaved popcorn and Tang as meals, no job opportunities, and property repossessions are just stark realities to be navigated for the basic cause of survival.

Hunt and cinematographer Reed Morano capture startling imagery of hauntingly beautiful and sparsely populated rural America and native reserve territory. The on-location filming near Plattsburgh creates a unique aesthetic and a sense of place detached entirely from modern urbanism, feeding the notion of people forgotten on the margins of what constitutes economic success.

Melissa Leo is a sturdy presence at the heart of the film, her mama bear performance filled with stripped-down determination and resourcefulness to do what it takes. The tragic Misty Upham provides a more subdued counterpoint, Lila's Mohawk heritage embedding a resigned disposition and quicker understanding of the tradeoffs that come with challenging laws.

With Ray as a primary focus Frozen River does shortchange Lila's background story, her child custody battle and troubled relationship with the Mohawk leadership receiving just perfunctory attention. And the ending is rushed compared to the preceding build-up. But Frozen River is a deep and fresh breath of filmmaking, carrying the sting of painfully cold realities.

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