Sony // 2008 // 93 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker (Retired) // February 10th, 2009
Desperation knows no borders.
Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo, Righteous Kill) is a hard-luck woman living in New York at the Canada border near Mohawk tribal land. Her husband's just run off on her again, not with another woman, but with the money they'd saved to buy a new double-wide trailer. It's just before Christmas, and now Ray and her two sons, 15-year-old TJ (Charlie McDermott, Sex Drive) and 5-year-old Ricky, face a bleak holiday.
Circumstances bring Ray together with Lila (Misty Upham, Skinwalkers), a Mohawk woman who makes money smuggling illegal immigrants into the US from a Canadian drop point. Soon, Ray and Lila make the trek regularly. The money is good -- with just a few runs, she's got almost enough for the payment on the double-wide -- but it's dangerous, and Ray's no criminal. Lila explains that because Ray's white, she'll have less trouble with the authorities than a Mohawk would have. Ray doesn't really trust or especially like Lila, but she's finally getting to the point that she'll be able to make a better life for her children. As long as she can hold up, the risk is worth it.
Frozen River is the kind of film that gives indies a good name. Writer/Director Courtney Hunt has crafted a satisfying and intelligent mix of character study, domestic drama, and crime thriller. Keeping it together and helping the film rise far above its modest origins is the proverbial performance of a lifetime from Melissa Leo.
Leo is nothing short of remarkable as the hardscrabble Ray. You know this woman from the moment she appears on screen, and Leo does too. There is no artifice here. This is not a showy, emotive turn that jumps off the screen; rather, it's a completely naturalistic performance that sidles up and stays with you long after the film is over.
Part of the power here is that Leo and Hunt are not afraid to make their heroine less-than sympathetic. When TJ accuses his mother of chasing off his father, we know exactly what he's talking about. We empathize with Ray, we want to see her succeed, but she's not someone we'd want to live with.
Leo gets fine support from her co-stars. Upham's Lila is a tricky creation, a survivor, but just barely. She's trapped in a dead-end life and is resigned to her own marginalization. Upham doesn't imbue this character with a synthetic nobility; her flat, dead-eyed world perspective is chilling and accurate. As the already disillusioned TJ, McDermott offers a solid portrait of a conflicted and frustrated kid cleaning up after the adults in his life.
The film is not without its flaws. For the first two-thirds, Hunt lets her story unfold naturally. There are very few "movie moments" -- no overlong and obviously written speeches, no mechanically quirky characters, no overly artificial patches of drama. Then Hunt falls back on contrivances to power the film to its end, including an unfortunate mini-parable on tolerance featuring some Middle Eastern immigrants and the inevitable One Last Run. We also get a fairly pat ending that resolves things a bit too neatly. It's understandable that Hunt would want her film to have a conventional, audience-friendly structure; it's just a shame that she sacrificed the understated gracefulness of the earlier scenes in service of those conventions.
Sony's disc looks very good. The transfer is just fine, with Reed Morano's striking cinematography coming across beautifully. Audio is a solid and standard 5.1 Surround track. Besides the trailer, the lone extra is a commentary with Hunt and producer Heather Rae, which is reasonably informative and interesting.
Thanks to Leo's justifiably acclaimed performance -- including a well-deserved Oscar nomination, with the script also receiving a nomination -- Frozen River has gotten play beyond the indie-and-festival circuit. Rightly so. The film is a mature and moving achievement. Highly recommended.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 93 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Official Site