On a very cold day, Judge Clark Douglas will cry you a frozen river.
Our review of Frozen River, published February 10th, 2009, is also available.
Desperation knows no borders.
"Just one more time, that's all I need."
Facts of the Case
Things haven't been going too well for Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada). Ray recently put down a $1500 deposit on a new double-wide trailer for her family, but she's going to lose that deposit if she doesn't come up with the down payment by Christmas day. Ray had the money when she initially decided to buy a new home, but her deadbeat husband ran off with the down payment, and he's nowhere to be found. Ray's doing everything she can, but it looks like she and her kids are going to be stuck in their poorly-insulated, beat-up single-wide for quite a while. Ray initially asks her boss about getting some more hours at work. "I see you as more of a short-timer," her boss says. Never mind that Ray has been working at the Yankee Dollar store for two years straight. Her son T.J. (Charlie McDermott, The Ten) wants to get a job to try and help out, but Ray won't hear of it. "You're only 15," she snaps. "Your job is taking care of your little brother Ricky (James Reilly)."
After a while, Ray decides to go looking for her husband. The first place she checks is the local Bingo palace. It would be just like her husband to go off and gamble all that money away. Ray breathes a sigh of relief when she finds her husband's car there, but quickly discovers that her husband is long gone. She's even more startled when she sees a young Native American woman (Misty Upham, Expiration Date) get inside her husband's car and drive away. Ray follows the woman to the local Mohawk reservation, and demands that she be given her husband's car. After a heated argument, the young woman introduces herself as Lila. "If you need some money, I know somebody who will give you $2000 for that car," she says. Ray cautiously agrees to explore this option, but soon discovers that she has been swindled into serving as Lila's accomplice in a smuggling operation. The bad news is that Ray has broken the law. The good news is that there seems to be a good deal of money in smuggling. If she helps Lila with just a few more trips, she'll have enough money to cover the down payment on the house. Will her plan work, or will this decision make her Ray's life much worse than it already is?
Frozen River is the sort of movie that often fades off into indie-film oblivion. It's a low-key, character-driven story that somehow managed to get some attention due to the award nominations and general acclaim being generated by the performance of Melissa Leo. What a performance it is. Leo gives her role an uncommon level of honesty and perception. It's a performance as notable for what it holds back as for what it offers. Leo manages to make certain scenes in the film intensely dramatic, but she keeps things well within the range of recognizable human emotion, preventing the scenes from becoming melodramatic. As a comparison, consider the performance of Angelina Jolie in Changeling. During Jolie's big scenes, I found myself thinking, "Now this is a very fine performance by Angelina Jolie." During Leo's big scenes, the work of the actress was the last thing on my mind. Leo really does become Ray Eddy, and the performance is most assuredly worthy of all the acclaim it has received.
There's a good chance that you've already heard similar praise for Leo's performance. Perhaps you haven't heard that the rest of Frozen River is equally good. This is a superb film that walks a very thin dramatic tightrope. Like Leo's performance, it tip-toes all the way up to the very edge of melodrama without ever going too far. As such, the film is quietly devastating. After the effective set-up in the film's first half, the second half works your stomach into knots. There are numerous moments in the film that feel like they are building up to a predictably tragic and horrible climax. I thought I knew precisely where the film was going, and was bracing myself in the hope that it wouldn't try to exploit the forthcoming tragedy too shamelessly. I was completely mistaken. The film takes several left turns, and genuinely surprised me in a number of ways. The unexpected alternate directions are by turns tragic, moving, and thoughtful, and above all, they are honest.
Perhaps the most valuable asset of Frozen River is that the film never attempts to become about something bigger than the lives of Ray and Lila. There are obvious launching pads here that provide Frozen River the easy opportunity to preach about "important subjects": illegal immigration, the side effects of poverty, addiction, and racism. All of these elements are included, but only as a realistic part of the film's tapestry, all in the service of helping us understand these two women better. The characters have flaws, and not the sort of charming "flaws" that "lovable sinners" have in the movies. Lila quite unashamedly exploits her status as a Mohawk, using her race as an excuse to commit various crimes. Ray seems to harbor some nasty racism, nearly refusing to help a Pakistani couple cross the border because she suspects they're going to try and blow people up. Frozen River doesn't apologize for the characters, but it does allow them the opportunity to grow and change.
I also want to make a special mention of Misty Upham in the role of Lila. Melissa Leo is the one getting all the attention, and I do believe that she deserves it. However, Upham is equally superb, and the movie would not work without her deeply heartfelt performance. Leo may be the heart of Frozen River, but Upham serves as the film's soul. It's really a two-person movie in many ways, but a few key supporting players add valuable (if small) contributions. Charlie McDermott finds a nice balance of innocence and detached disillusionment as Ray's 15-year-old son, and Michael O'Keefe manages to create a very well-defined character in just a few brief scenes. Mark Boone Junior brings a measure of sleazy danger to his scenes just by participating in them.
I wasn't expecting a low-budget film like Frozen River to be something that would benefit enormously from a hi-def transfer, but it really does. This is a rather striking film visually. Reed Morano's cinematography highlights the icy despair of the surroundings, giving the film an invaluable visual mood. Flesh tones are well balanced, and background detail is very sharp. The wintry daytime scenes look really exceptional, though some of the darker scenes are rather murky, and blacks aren't particularly deep. Your subwoofer will throb during one brief scene at a strip club late in the film, but otherwise this is a very low-key audio track with well-balanced elements. The sensitive score by Peter Golub and Shahzad Ismaily effectively supports the film without ever distracting from it. The only extra on the disc is an informative (but gap-heavy) audio commentary with writer/director Courtney Hunt and producer Heather Rae.
Frozen River is a beautiful little gem of a movie, easily one of the stronger films of 2008. Its atmospheric mood is captured fairly well on this Blu-ray disc, but the quality of the film alone is enough to merit an easy recommendation.
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