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Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Review: Frozen River (2008)

* * * *

Director: Courtney Hunt
Starring: Melissa Leo, Misty Upham

The difference between right and wrong is easy to discern when everything is fine, but when economic necessity paves the way for moral relativism, the waters become considerably murkier. So it is with writer/director Courtney Hunt’s debut film, which poses a different version of the old question “would you steal a loaf of bread to feed your family?” It’s an uncompromising look at the kind of poverty rarely explored in film.

We meet Ray (Melissa Leo) when she’s already at the breaking point. Her husband, Troy, is a gambler who has taken off with the money they were going to use to buy a double wide and get themselves and their two boys out of the rusting trailer they’ve been living in. She puts on a brave face, trying to hold it together for her kids and not let on that their father has disappeared, they may not get their home, and that Christmas – just days away – may be a non-event, but her elder son (Charlie McDermott) is aware that it's all gone wrong. He wants to get a job to help pay the bills, but she refuses to let him, insisting that he stay in school. Their relationship is a difficult one and he’s an angry young man. He’s angry about the lack of money and food in the house, angry that his father has abandoned them, angry because he believes that his mother drove his father away, angry because he’s 15 and burdened with too many responsibilities and angry because his mother continually reminds him that he’s not the grown up he’s come to think he is.

Driving by the bingo hall, Ray sees her husband’s car and later learns that it was abandoned at the bus station. Lila (Misty Upham), the woman who took the car, tells her that she knows someone who will give her two grand for the car and talks her into going into Canada across the frozen river running through the Mohawk reservation. All is not how it seems, however, and Ray finds herself smuggling illegal immigrants across the river in the trunk of her car. It’s a dangerous game but the money is good and, as Lila points out to her, she’s white and the local troopers won’t pull her over unless she gives them a reason. The two form an uneasy partnership and, despite their differences, come to realize that they’re more similar than they’d like to admit. Lila is a single mother as well, though her infant son has been taken from her by her mother-in-law, and living a similar hand-to-mouth existence. These are two women in desperate straits and their actions come not from greed or even the need to survive, but out of the need to provide for their children.

There’s a coldness to the film that comes not just from the starkness of the landscape, but also from the dispassionate eye that Hunt trains on her characters. Ray and Lila are flawed people, prone to violence and racism, but the film doesn’t make value judgments against them and instead tries simply to understand them. Ray rails against her husband for his gambling, but isn’t actually very different from him. Like a compulsive gambler who keeps letting it ride hoping for the big payday, Ray keeps going back across the river, courting more danger each time, putting her life and the future of her children at risk. For her part, Lila is ashamed of her poor eyesight and it drives her to turn to smuggling rather than accept a legitimate job on the reservation. She loves her son and wants the best for him and yet she continues to cross the river, risking that she’ll die the same way her husband did and leave the boy an orphan. The way that Hunt lays these characters and their lives bare is very effective and their story unfolds in a simple, but brutal, way.

Melissa Leo was nominated for Best Actress for this film and deservedly so. Hers is a performance completely devoid of vanity, open to the kind of ordinary desperation few stories or actors can be bothered with. There’s no “big scene” here, no big emotional blow-out, no show stopper; there’s just a great, quiet performance that is sustained from moment to moment, making everything seem undeniably and immediately real. Standing side-by-side with Leo, but less celebrated by awards, is Misty Upham, who matches Leo note for note as both her antagonist and, later, her partner. In a story as thoroughly driven by character as this one is, extraordinary performances are required – and this film has that in spades.

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