It never fails; well, usually. You get a summer, like the one we’ve just suffered through, of fairly unmitigated mediocrity, with event tentpoles like Hellboy II and Star Wars: The Clone Wars not even coming close to making the grade, and even your quality “indie” films like Burn After Reading arriving overstuffed with marquee stars but a dearth of ideas.
Then, just when you start worrying about the state of American movies, and wondering whether the business is going to swandive into irrelevance like so many other home-grown industries, along comes something like Frozen River. No, the film is not going to kickstart a Hollywood that seems worryingly short on imagination. Also, most of the world will never even hear about Frozen River, let alone see it. But it does remind you that there is still a thriving creative community out there that can produce a starless, no-budget film like this with a crackerjack story and a sucker punch of an ending that can stand tall against just about anything else that’s hit theaters in 2008.
Starting in a small upstate New York burg that sits on the US-Quebec border, with no real preamble besides a tearful morning and a lonely smoke, Frozen River aims near to the ground right from the start, and keeps hugging that territory all the way through. Set in the immediate run-up to Christmas, the film trades in images of rural desperation and lives frayed from worry, rarely lifting its view from the landscape of crumbling trailers and slushy streets to take in much of the outside world, because that is essentially irrelevant to its characters.
“They’re from Pakistan,” one woman explains to another, who responds with more than a tinge of irritation, “Well, where the fuck is that?” Somewhat impressively, it’s not meant to be a satiric jab at the characters’ ignorance, but rather comes across as an acknowledgement of the tunnel vision that poverty and rough living can create.
Earlier in Frozen River, well before such a barking response, you might think that the woman who uttered it, Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo), is going to be another one of those plucky “real women” whom films occasionally like to give audiences a burnished image of. Eddy’s got old faded tattoos, a ragged haircut, no real friends to speak of, wrinkles like you wouldn’t believe, and a lousy part-time job at a dollar store.
She has money problems. Lots of them. And she would have had those money problems even if her junkie gambler of a husband hadn’t taken off with the cash they’d been saving to make a payment on the nice new double-wide trailer home she wants to move her kids into.
Leo, a veteran actor (Homicide: Life on the Streets) from the Amy Ryan school who’s very late in getting her Vera Farmiga shot at a knock’em dead character piece, plays Eddy straight, without an ounce of award-glomming overkill. Fortunately, first-time writer-director Courtney Hunt isn’t interested in presenting some idealized story of working-class pluck and determination.
That much is certain from the film’s early scenes, where Eddy—realizing that without the money that her husband ran off with, they might lose the deposit on the new trailer—goes stomping off through the snow to find her missing man. Eddy tracks his car to the trailer home of Lily (Misty Upham), a Mohawk woman who lives on the nearby reservation that sits on both sides of the border. To get her attention, Eddy whips out a revolver and blasts a hole through the woman’s door. So she’s a real woman all right, just not the kind that films normally present to us.
Eddy is desperate but not yet around the bend, driven but not obsessed. There’s something in Leo’s spare movements in that scene that speak of nothing less than full-immersion acting of the highest order. It’s the sort of thing that Julia Roberts or Charlize Theron could never pull off, no matter how many bad haircuts they got.
Following that unconventional method of introduction, Eddy gets sucked into Lily’s sideline gig: smuggling illegals into the country from Quebec by putting them into the trunk of a car and driving them across a frozen river on the reservation. When Eddy gets worried that state troopers will pull them over once they’re off reservation land (where the tribal police hold jurisdiction), Lily consoles her with the weary assurance of the frequently profiled, “They won’t pull you over, you’re white.”
Easily handling her side of what is essentially a two-actress character piece, Upham also gives us the kind of woman practically never seen on film. Similar to how black actors were stuck playing types until relatively recently (and still quite often are), Native Americans have been essentially invisible in film, except when called upon to fill a stereotype (the proud warrior, say). Upham’s young single mother—her husband is died, and her mother in law took her baby from her, blaming Lily for her son’s death—has made about as many mistakes in life as Eddy, and also sees no other way out of it but to keep driving that car over the creaking ice in the dead of night, with frightened Chinese workers stuffed in the trunk.
Although the women have much in common, Hunt is too smart a filmmaker to bring the barriers down that easily. There are recriminations made and blows struck, not to mention the shadow of racial strife that plays out beneath the surface, surfacing in bitter remarks and mutual suspicion. It’s only when the plot begins to ratchet up into a wintry kind of noir that any sort of common ground is conceded, and then grudgingly.
A study of frayed lives and financial strangulation, Frozen River is a supremely satisfying film that flirts with the crime genre without ever resorting to its clichés. Who knows? With filmmakers like Hunt and actresses like Leo and Upsham out there, maybe American film does stand a chance.