Writer/Director's Debut Feature Courageously Explores A Different Kind Of Women'S Film
In American movies, money usually appears in big round figures--tens of thousands owed to a thug or millions nabbed in a daring heist--and the "average" character is middle-class-verging-on-upper, as the spacious apartments, shopping sprees, and second homes attest. Watching Ray Eddy (Homicide: Life on the Street's Melissa Leo) fishing change out of her jeans pocket each day for her two kids' lunch or thrilled to discover a crumpled five she can convert into another gallon or so at the gas pump provides as stark a contrast to the usual Hollywood economics as Leo's road map of a face does to the typical starlet's unlined kisser.
Ray is poor, but unlike most lower-income people in the movies, hers is not a character part, mere set dressing or a convenient foil for the lead's ultimate enlightenment. Frozen River tells her story, and her poverty feeds her desperation, which sets the intricate gears of rookie writer/director Courtney Hunt's plot spinning inexorably forward.
Ray's husband, a gambling addict, has fled the snowbanks and mud puddles of their upstate New York town with the family's meager savings a week or so before Christmas, leaving her with nothing but excuses when a semi shows up to deliver the first section of the family's much anticipated double-wide--in one of Frozen River's many subtle poetic details, Ray is too poor to afford even half a new house. She finally tracks down her wayward husband's car, only to watch as a young Mohawk Indian woman gets into it and drive away. It turns out that Lila (Misty Upham) is having no easier a time of it than Ray, but she has a way to make some cash: smuggling illegal immigrants across the title waterway from Canada via the Mohawk reservation. Lila needs a car to make the runs, Ray needs money, and a couple of quick paydays from her uneasy alliance with Lila find Ray feeling almost hopeful as Christmas approaches. But Hunt's script has already established Ray's luck, and pushing it as she does with Lila, it's not long before things become even more desperate than before.
The long, slow closeup-tight pan over the entire length of Ray's body that begins Frozen River pulls no punches about her. The small tattoos hinting at a hopeful but ill-advised youth, the frowsy fleece robe revealing that she shops infrequently and on the supercheap, the cigarette smoldering in pale, bony fingers broadcasting worry and hard living even before the camera meets her anxious gaze--it's all there before Leo even says a line. The actress' flinty, surgery-free beauty and emotional volubility have won her many jobs playing blue-collar women in the past five years, most notably in 21 Grams and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, but Ray is her meatiest role since Homicide. Even as Ray's racism and her inconsistent parenting of teenage T.J. (Charlie McDermott) and Ricky (James Reilly) take you aback, the good heart and gnawing worry that Leo embodies with the tense set of her mouth and her welling eyes reel you back in.
As good as Leo is here, however, credit is due also to Hunt's half of the creation. Her script and her vision provide the cheap "cheery" pastels of Ray's clothes and beauty products, which make the character's busted-ass trailer and laundry-bag wardrobe feel even more grim. And it's the neat geometry of Hunt's script that pushes Ray forward and keeps you right with her as, with her options closing behind her and unpleasant courses of action yawning ahead, she mumbles, "This is so fuckin' stupid," then pulls out onto the ice.
There's little fat to the story, and no bad performances among the main characters, but Frozen River isn't without its faults. It's crammed with perfect details--when Ray's kids get popcorn and Tang for dinner, it's not the first time--but there are also little touches that knock it a hair or two off its bedrock realism. The store where Ray works is called Yankee Dollar, and even if that's a real name, it's too much here, as is the name of the prefab home peddler: Guy Versailles. The drama of Ray's predicament builds as dramas do--the subplot involving half-grown T.J.'s misguided attempts to help out is particularly tense--but by the time Mark Boone Junior shows up as a sleazy Canadian smuggler with a Pepé Le Pew accent, Frozen River starts to feel a little less than faithful to the hard truths and straight shots it has traded in up until then.
Ultimately, Frozen River is a welcome reminder of Leo's talent and serves notice that whatever Hunt does next will be well worth watching out for. And while people generally go to the movies to escape their worries, being trapped in Ray's worn-down snow boots as she struggles not to lose her weakening grip on her American dream constitute some of the more illuminating and memorable moments you'll spend in the dark this year.