- Rated R
- Buy the DVD
All photos © Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed by Bob Westal
he dramatic action of “Frozen River” opens with a close-up of Melissa Leo as trailer park mom Ray Eddy having her first cigarette of the day. The lines on her face are visible, some blood vessels too – maybe a hint of a pimple or two. Even though lots of people look worse than this first thing in the morning, and not only in trailer parks, seeing a woman look this unglamorous in a movie, even a modestly budgeted Sundance fave, is kind of shocking. It’s crucial, because this very unusual moment sets up everything that follows in this surprising and often suspenseful drama of late Bush-era desperation and ill-conceived crime.
In any case, our mother-of-two protagonist has plenty of good reasons to look miserable. It’s a few days before Christmas and her compulsive gambler husband has fled, probably for good, with money meant for food, bills and the final payments for the family’s dream doublewide mobile home. While her five year-old (James Reilly) is dreaming of a Hot Wheels track set from Santa, T.J. (Charlie McDermott), her bright 15-year-old, is only too aware of the situation and is tired of subsisting on school lunches, popcorn and Tang whenever the money runs out. Also, it’s probably not helping that Ray’s only gig is a part-time job at a dollar store, she lives in upstate New York, and everything’s frozen.
Things get more dangerous when, in the course of trying to track down her long gone spouse, or at least the family car, Ray meets up with a young woman from the nearby Mohawk reservation. A young mother who has been forcibly separated from her newborn child, Lila (Misty Upham) makes her living mostly by helping local criminals transport illegal aliens across the portion of the territory connecting upstate New York and Quebec, though she argues that what she’s doing is legal under tribal law.
Not that it matters to Ray; when it comes to taking care of her family, she is unafraid to wave a gun in someone’s face, break numerous laws, or cross a frozen body of water in an automobile. The lure of quick cash is just too much to ignore, and she’s ready to do all of that and more. Of course, trouble will follow: there’s a state trooper (Michael O’Keefe – a million miles from “Caddyshack”) keeping a careful eye on the area; and the threat of heartbreaking tragedy is never far away – especially when Ray’s low-information patriotism enters the mix.
For a good portion of its lean 90-minute running time, “Frozen River” seems like it’s going to go the way of a number of similar beautifully photographed, award-winning, festival/art house-friendly, indie mega-downer semi-thrillers, and the largely acoustic guitar-driven score makes it seem depressingly familiar at times. Fortunately, a tart sense of irony and a second act plot point spins the film’s emotional trajectory into an entirely different place, setting the stage for a conclusion that more than rewards our attention. It’s a craftily written screenplay from director Courtney Hunt that earns its slot among this year’s Best Original Screenplay Oscar nominees.
Speaking of Oscars, Melissa Leo’s nominated performance is justly praised. That’s not to say that she’s any better or worse than she’s been for years, going back to her extremely strong work on the classic television series, “Homicide: Life on the Streets.” Fortunately, though, Ms. Leo is just part of a talented ensemble. Misty Upham gained a significant amount of weight for her role, but there’s no actory showing-off here. Her characterization is a strong exercise in ironic bitterness slowly transforming into something far more redemptive. Among the supporting cast, Michael O’Keefe does his taciturn patrolman proud, but the standout here may be Charlie McDermott as T.J. He transcends the usual angry adolescent clichés with a great deal of nuance and humor that’s appropriate to a boy who, in one of the film’s most interesting scenes, turns out to be a born telemarketer.
Director Courtney Hunt also deserves extra praise for her work with a number of extremely young performers, including James Reilly – who makes a very lovable kindergartner – and an assortment of charismatic toddlers and babies. This is more than mere goo-gooing on my part; the care and protection of young children is the primary motivation in “Frozen River.” There’s a reason for the old show business saw about not working with animals or kids, but Ms. Hunt makes it work for her.
Single-Disc DVD Review:
The only special feature on the just-the-basics “Frozen River” DVD is a commentary featuring Courtney Hunt and producer Heather Rae. Fortunately, the two filmmakers have a dramatic tale to tell about the travails of delivering a film with outstanding production values and name actors for a remarkably low six-figure budget.