Odd little tale sneaks in a bit of a thriller

Rene Rodriguez
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

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

Oscar voters may have made some boneheaded decisions with this year's batch of Oscar nominees - like ignoring "The Dark Knight" as a Best Picture contender or snubbing "Gran Torino's" Clint Eastwood in the Best Actor category - but they did get some things right.

Chief among them: The Best Original Screenplay and Best Actress nominations for "Frozen River" (Sony Pictures, $29 DVD, $40 Blu-ray), which got buried under the late summer movie avalanche last August, but still made enough of an impression to be remembered at Oscar nomination time.

Sony Pictures Classics, the studio that distributed "Frozen River," made the canny decision to send DVD screeners to Academy voters way back in September, and the film itself took care of the rest, since the debut of writer-director Courtney Hunt is hard to shake off after you've seen it.

Made for less than $1 million, the film stars Oscar nominee Melissa Leo as Ray, the mother of two boys scrambling to keep her family together after her gambling-addict husband abandons the family, taking with him the money for a new double-wide trailer home they had planned to buy.

Desperate not to lose her $1,500 down payment on the home - the only money she has left in the world - Ray sets out to find her husband and winds up falling into business with another single mother, Lila (Misty Upham), a resident of a nearby Mohawk reservation who has developed a lucrative but incredibly dangerous scheme transporting illegal refugees inside her car trunk across a frozen river spanning the U.S.-Canada border.

Straddling the line between character drama and thriller, "Frozen River" achieves near-unbearable moments of suspense without any Hollywood flash because Hunt keeps her focus trained on her characters, whom you grow to care for as if you knew them personally.

It helps, too, that Leo's performance as the increasingly distraught Ray, whose actions grow more careless as her situation worsens, marks a career high for the veteran actress. Beginning with the first time you see Ray, crying and smoking a cigarette in an unforgiving close-up, Leo makes you feel her character's desperation, and her relationship with her two sons (played by Charlie McDermott and James Reilly) helps you overlook some of the less-than-wise parental decisions Ray makes while trying to provide for her family.

Both the DVD and Blu-ray versions of "Frozen River" include a commentary track by Hunt and producer Heather Rae, who split their time talking about the themes in the film and the pitfalls of no-budget filmmaking. Hunt, who drew on personal experience to write the script (she was raised by a single working-class mother) says she identified with Ray's teenage son more than any other character in the film. "I know what it's like to grow up being aware that things weren't perfect, we didn't have any money but we were out there doing our thing and making a team effort toward survival."

The filmmakers reveal that when Upham showed up on the set for filming, she had lopped off her beautiful long hair and gained 40 pounds since she had been cast months earlier, which was initially startling, but wound up serving the character beautifully. Hunt admits that when co-star Mark Boone Jr. showed up to film his scenes, the actor "scared the hell out of her," because he had been hanging out with Hells Angels to research his role as a human trafficker and came to the set already in character.

Hunt and Rae also talk about why "Frozen River" uses three distinct musical scores depending on the scene and their difficulty in maintaining visual continuity (the reason why blood was used so sparingly in the film is that they were afraid it wouldn't match up from shot to shot). Hunt raised the financing for "Frozen River" by making a much shorter version of the movie with the same actors, and it's a shame that version was not included as an extra on the disc. But it might have taken away from the intensity of the finished film, which was one of the best movies of 2008 you probably didn't see. Here's your chance.

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