Frozen River opens on scenes from the border bridge in upstate New York: “Welcome to Massena, Gateway to the Fourth Coast”. We are then presented with our first shot of Ray (Melissa Leo) – she is in extreme close-up, smoking , as tears stream down her cheeks. Between this introduction to the main character and the bleak, desolate shots of snow-covered fields and the river, Frozen River immediately sets up the tone of film: a naturalistic approach to the way the places are shot, as well as the acting, almost bordering on starkness.
The film focuses on the desperation of seemingly unrelated characters, brought together in a way that manages to make sense, even if the circumstances are not typical. Ray is burdened by a disappearing, gambling-addicted husband and a low-paying, part-time job. She finds herself digging into couch cushions to find change for her two sons’ lunch money and is struggling to come up with the final payment (that her husband’s run off with) for their new double wide trailer.
Ray’s path crosses with Lila’s (Misty Upham) at a bingo parlor where she’s trying to find her husband. His car is in the parking lot and Lila drives off in it with Ray following. Their initial meeting is hostile, yet also very matter-of-fact. When Lila suggests she knows someone interested in buying the car, Ray reluctantly agrees to meet this person. She is then caught up in an illegal smuggling operation across the United States/Canadian border and although she is initially hesitant, she still takes part.
While it’s clear that Ray is only interested in getting the money to pay for her trailer, Lila is a known smuggler. At one point she tries to buy a car and is denied. The dealership employee has been instructed: “Nothing with a trunk”. Meanwhile, Lila’s also struggling with the absence of her young son. Taken away by Lila’s mother-in-law when the baby was born, Lila saves all her money to get him back. That her husband died crossing the river as a smuggler does not deter her from continuing to smuggle people across the same treacherous river.
What’s most interesting about the relationship that develops between Ray and Lila is the almost unemotional, straightforwardness of it. The forging of their unconventional friendship is not necessarily an original premise, but there is a practicality to it that sets it apart from more standard story arcs. Both Ray and Lila live hard lives and their experiences bind them together, as well as create a wall.
The frozen river serves as a metaphor for the danger involved in crossing borders.
Writer/director Courtney Hunt is not especially subtle in using the river to parallel the path these women are on, however, that’s not to say it isn’t effective. In the commentary Hunt says: “The movie is about the different sides of things – different sides of the river, different sides of the border”. Much of the credit in making these women and their story so compelling is the wonderful work done by both Leo and Upham. They never oversell their characters and in turn, they create a relationship whose progression seems almost normal, despite the extenuating circumstances.
The first time Ray and Lila drive across the river there is a real fear that they will not make it across, much like the first time they smuggle illegal immigrants into the country. As Ray becomes more resigned to smuggling, her initial trepidations seem to fade. By the time there’s a crack in the river, it’s clear that something has to give in both Ray and Lila’s lives.
The film also has to balance Ray’s relationship with her sons, T.J. and Ricky, as she continues smuggling and keeping things afloat at home. T.J., the oldest of the boys, is desperate to help with his family’s financial troubles. He repeatedly mentions getting a job and makes money with a phone scam . His and Ricky’s well-being are always in the background, making Ray’s choices that much more difficult and problematic. In the end, when things seem hopeless and Ray and Lila find themselves in an impossible situation, T.J. and Ricky become a more direct part of the story. Frozen River makes excellent use of its actors and the locations. It ably moves between desperation, fear, and sacrifice, yet it still retains a small glimmer of hope that things will somehow work out in the end.
The only bonus feature included in the DVD release is commentary by writer/director Courtney Hunt and producer Heather Rae. Their commentary focuses on both technical decisions and character motivations. It is especially enlightening when they discuss how many of the smaller roles were played by either non-actors or unknowns – not necessarily surprising, but clearly useful in understanding the choices made by Hunt, Rae, and others.