Long stretches of snowy landscape, gray sky, gray fencing. A truck loaded with straw rumbles past a road sign: “Welcome to Massena: Gateway to the Fourth Coast.” Also known as “the Orphan Town,” Massena, New York serves as literal and metaphorical border in Frozen River. Located on the St. Lawrence River across from Canada, the town includes as well a Mohawk reservation. Living on this border, Ray (Melissa Leo) first appears in her car, parked outside a trailer home. She smokes a cigarette, her red eyes, trampled face, and chipped nail polish emphasized in alternate close-ups.
Yes, Ray’s life is hard. But she’s got kids, five-year-old Ricky (James Reilly) and 15-year-old T.J. (Charlie McDermott), and a dream of something better. Specifically, she looks forward to moving her family from their exceedingly beat trailer into a brand new doublewide, due for delivery this very day. Within minutes, however, her life gets harder. Her gambler husband has run off with the $4,372 she’s scraped together, and despite her pleadings and promises to the doublewide dealer, he won’t leave it with her without the balance payment. What’s more, the dealer tells her, she’s about to lose her down payment: “This is the second time you’ve dragged me out here.” She needs the money. Now, Ray’s plot is established.
As the double-wide disappears down the road and Ray turns back to the trailer, T.J. looks disgusted. “I can get a job, you know,” he says, as if he’s said it before. Which reminds her, she’s got to get to work — at the Yankee Dollar outlet. Another of the movie’s insistent emblems, the store, in need of a paint job and just down the road from the bingo palace, indicates the region’s poverty and its race divisions. On her way to work that dreary morning, Ray runs smack into both, when she finds her husband’s Dodge Spirit, now being driven by Lila (Misty Upham).
“It’s my car,” protests Lila, “I found it,” then proceeds to drive it to her own trailer, on the Mohawk reservation. Ray follows, planning to take the car back with the threat of a handgun she wields inexpertly but effectively enough. Soon, the women enter into an uneasy deal: Lila, also a single mother, needs a car to keep up her decidedly informal smuggling business, carrying illegals from Canada to the States in the trunk of a car. “I usually don’t work with whites,” she says, but makes the exception for Ray, who does, after all, have two cars, not to mention that gun.
The women’s partnership evolves slowly, in between brief scenes of their very separate but parallel lives. At Ray’s trailer, the showerhead is rusty, the space cramped, and the boys eat popcorn and Tang for breakfast (a too-obvious sign of the family’s simultaneous desperation and immersion in commercial culture). Cut to Lila, eating Pringles while sitting in a tree outside her mother-in-law’s house, where her son now lives (following her smuggler husband’s death, the tribe placed the baby here; Lila leaves money in a can on the doorstep). Both mothers seek similar ends, some measure of security and some kind of future for their kids. While Ray’s determined to possess the doublewide, Lila is burdened with her own overt metaphor: she has trouble seeing (and so, driving), but refuses to get glasses — for now.
Ray and Lila’s shared routine involves driving across the frozen St. Lawrence River, a lightless route that looks daunting whether viewed from inside Ray’s Sentra or from outside, in long shot. At first, Ray’s reluctant to drive on the ice, but Lila assures her, “It’ll hold a Spirit, I’ve seen semis cross it.” Ray sighs, “This is so fucking stupid,” and starts driving. Ray remains troubled by the idea of breaking the law, but keeps her eye on the prize of the doublewide payment (as well as an added emblem of her imminent failure in T.J.’s eyes, a huge flat-screen TV that’s about to be repossessed, and oh yes, the looming specter of Christmas, and Ricky’s TV-inspired desire for a Hot Wheels track). She’s encouraged as well by Lila’s version of laws and limits: “There’s no border here,” she explains, this is free trade between nations,” Canadian and Mohawk.
Still, as the film points out via Ray’s pervasive distrust and racism, the very concept of nations is changed, post-9/11. Though she has no problem with the usual Chinese cargo, Ray’s disinclined to bring over a Pakistani couple. They’re carrying a duffle bag they don’t want opened, and so Ray jumps to immediate conclusions: “I just hope they’re not the ones who blow themselves and everyone else up.” Faced with two choices — money or no money — Ray agrees to the job, insisting that the bag ride in the back seat, not in the trunk with the “Pakis.” Partway across the river, Ray is so fixated and distressed by the “nuclear weapon” that might be in the backseat that she stops the car and dumps the bag, only to learn, when they leave the couple at the usual motel, that it holds an infant.
This crisis isn’t Frozen River‘s climax (still more trouble awaits Ray and Lila), but it does neatly combine its short range of themes, namely, desperate parents, enduring prejudices, and vexed borders. Here as elsewhere, Courtney Hunt’s film is burdened by its own symbolism. And here as elsewhere, it is buoyed by Leo’s nuanced performance. Perpetually caught between bad options, Ray is resilient and damaged, fierce and brooding, complex despite her reductive plot turns. Set against all those long stretches of white and gray, Leo makes Ray singular.