Frozen River

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.

Frozen River

Director: Courtney Hunt
Cast: Melissa Leo, Misty Upham, Charlie McDermott, Mark Boone Junior, James Reilly
Distributor: Sony
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
First date: 2008
US DVD Release Date: 2009-02-10

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.







The 10 Best Fleetwood Mac Solo Albums

Fleetwood Mac are the rare group that feature both a fine discography and a successful series of solo LPs from their many members. Here are ten examples of the latter.


Jamila Woods' "SULA (Paperback)" and Creative Ancestry and Self-Love in the Age of "List" Activism

In Jamila Woods' latest single "SULA (Paperback)", Toni Morrison and her 1973 novel of the same name are not static literary phenomena. They are an artist and artwork as galvanizing and alive as Woods herself.


The Erotic Disruption of the Self in Paul Schrader's 'The Comfort of Strangers'

Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers presents the discomfiting encounter with another —someone like you—and yet entirely unlike you, mysterious to you, unknown and unknowable.


'Can You Spell Urusei Yatsura' Is a Much Needed Burst of Hopefulness in a Desultory Summer

A new compilation online pulls together a generous helping of B-side action from a band deserving of remembrance, Scotland's Urusei Yatsura.


Jess Cornelius Creates Tautly Constructed Snapshots of Life

Former Teeth & Tongue singer-songwriter Jess Cornelius' Distance is an enrapturing collection of punchy garage-rock, delicate folk, and arty synthpop anthems which examine liminal spaces between us.


Sikoryak's 'Constitution Illustrated' Pay Homage to Comics and the Constitution

R. Sikoryak's satirical pairings of comics characters with famous and infamous American historical figures breathes new and sometimes uncomfortable life into the United States' most living document.


South African Folk Master Vusi Mahlasela Honors Home on 'Shebeen Queen'

South African folk master Vusi Mahlasela pays tribute to his home and family with township music on live album, Shebeen Queen.


Planningtorock Is Queering Sound, Challenging Binaries, and Making Infectious Dance Music

Planningtorock emphasizes "queering sound and vision". The music industry has its hierarchies of style, of equipment, of identities. For Jam Rostron, queering music means taking those conventions and deliberately manipulating and subverting them.


'History Gets Ahead of the Story' for Jazz's Cosgrove, Medeski, and Lederer

Jazz drummer Jeff Cosgrove leads brilliant organ player John Medeski and multi-reed master Jeff Lederer through a revelatory recording of songs by William Parker and some just-as-good originals.


A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.


The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.


Jaye Jayle's 'Prisyn' Is a Dark Ride Into Electric Night

Jaye Jayle salvage the best materials from Iggy Pop and David Bowie's Berlin-era on Prisyn to construct a powerful and impressive engine all their own.


Kathleen Edwards Finds 'Total Freedom'

Kathleen Edwards is back making music after a five-year break, and it was worth the wait. The songs on Total Freedom are lyrically delightful and melodically charming.


HBO's 'Lovecraft Country' Is Heady, Poetic, and Mangled

Laying the everyday experience of Black life in 1950s America against Cthulhuian nightmares, Misha Green and Jordan Peele's Lovecraft Country suggests intriguing parallels that are often lost in its narrative dead-ends.


Jaga Jazzist's 'Pyramid' Is an Earthy, Complex, Jazz-Fusion Throwback

On their first album in five years, Norway's Jaga Jazzist create a smooth but intricate pastiche of styles with Pyramid.


Finding the Light: An Interview with Kathy Sledge

With a timeless voice that's made her the "Queen of Club Quarantine", Grammy-nominated vocalist Kathy Sledge opens up her "Family Room" and delivers new grooves with Horse Meat Disco.


'Bigger Than History: Why Archaeology Matters'

On everything from climate change to gender identity, archaeologists offer vital insight into contemporary issues.


'Avengers: Endgame' Culminates 2010's Pop Culture Phenomenon

Avengers: Endgame features all the expected trappings of a superhero blockbuster alongside surprisingly rich character resolutions to become the most crowd-pleasing finalés to a long-running pop culture series ever made.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.