“Frozen River” is a story beautifully told and realized. Along with “The Visitor,” it stands as the finest film so far this year. If it lacks the shallow distinction of being blessed with familiar actors, it possesses the virtue of a potent simplicity blessed by some splendid performances — one of them worthy of an Oscar.
Courtney Hunt’s work is a dramatic thriller, but it is also a rich character study of a woman we have all met; perhaps you’ve seen her working in a dollar store. That’s where Ray, played by Melissa Leo, labors on the edge of a Mohawk Reservation near the New York state-Canadian border. If only, as promised, her boss would put her on full time; but you know how these things go with health care and all that.
WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY Courtney Hunt
STARRING Melissa Leo, Misty Upham, Charlie McDermott, Mark Boone Junior and Michael O’Keefe
RUNNING TIME: 96 minutes
Perhaps on your way to Canada by way of Massena, you’ve driven by the tawdry line of gas stations, bingo joints and rusty trailers like the one Ray lives in with her two boys. I have, more than once, and I can report that the depiction of the bleak environment is dead-on.
Ray is a white woman, a single mom with two boys; she’s married to a compulsive gambler, a scratch ticket lottery addict who has taken off, most probably on a casino binge. He has absconded with the downpayment for the new, shiny trailer, and when we meet Ray in the film’s first scene, she is nursing a cigarette in her fingers, nails dulled by fading polish.
Forget the money for the trailer. Her boys will once more endure breakfasts of Tang and popcorn. She can barely afford a few tanks of gas. Her only luxury is a big-screen TV rented from a company ready to repossess.
Having read all this, you may protest that this is a depressing movie, the kind designed to get you down. I contend that this understandable first reaction does no justice to a film that is as uplifting as it is tense, as optimistic as it is real.
In short time, Ray will meet a Mohawk woman. She is Lila, played with rustic sensitivity by Misty Upham. Lila resides in a trailer more broken-down than Ray’s. Lila’s infant son has been taken by her mother-in-law. And Lila needs glasses. Talk about lowdown.
Their first meeting is a confrontation, but it is at this juncture that Lila induces Ray to drive across the frozen river hardened and covered with snow. It is a harsh but comparatively short trip across the ice and into Canada. In no time, Ray is face to face with smugglers who pay her and Lila to transport alien workers across the border into the States. Slave trade. Easy money. Along the way, you may ask yourself: “If I were a single mother who could hardly put a decent meal together, would I too take a chance breaking the law?”
As a white woman, she might escape the scrutiny of the state trooper (Michael O’Keefe) as she drives past him, stowaways in her trunk.
Complications arise, and as handled by Hunt, they are tense and credible. The attention to detail is superb — gritty and naturalistic. We can smell the inside of the trailer, feel the austere bite of wintry air and all but touch the despair.
Yet, there is more to this tale, because for all its bleak candor, “Frozen River” is exalted by the emergence of a true bonding between Lila and Ray, two women who learn how to survive without men. The feminist in all of us can rejoice and respond to this tale, which is not, by any stretch of the imagination, false or cloying.
Every one of the performances has the ring of authenticity. I can single out Upham, wonderful as the Mohawk woman, and Charlie McDermott as Ray’s 15-year-old son; it’s a performance that puts many of the more popular teen stints to shame.
But it is Leo who gives the movie its inner core of strength and dignity. You believe in this woman because she comes to us whole as a struggling soul we have all met or noticed. Leo gives this dollar store clerk the dignity she deserves, bringing to life the struggling single mother who does her best, hoping against hope that she can get her children out of the mess they were born into.
May we see more movies directed by Courtney Hunt and even more of Melissa Leo, who has turned in what is so far the finest female performance of the year.