“Frozen River” will hold you to the last frame. Writer/director Courtney Hunt
filmed this exceptional movie in the rural emptiness of the border between
Canada and northern New York State. It is the kind of landscape that presents
the natural beauty of isolation to the passing traveler or adventurer while
offering only desolation to the people who live there.
The St. Lawrence River bisects not only the U.S. and Canada but also the St. Regis Mohawk reservation leaving the reservation free of legal interference from both countries. It is understandable that neither country’s legal system can deal with the intricacies of the geography. Inside its gates, residents of the reservation are safe. The river flows through a flat, frozen countryside that over the years has provided easy smuggling of liquor during prohibition, of cigarettes after taxes soared, and now of people.
Ray (Melissa Leo) lives in a single-wide trailer with her five and fifteen year-old sons. Her husband has just boarded a bus to nowhere, his pockets lined with the money she had saved for the double-wide she had ordered. Her earnings at the Yankee Dollar Store will pay for little. In a lovely mark of this movie, Ray still manages to create the illusion of home and security for her littlest boy while her world is disintegrating. The older one straddles the sharp edge between teenage boredom and adult awareness.
Ray meets Lila (Misty Upham), a Mohawk Indian who is also a single mother. Both are tough and desperate. Lila needs a white woman to drive her across the frozen river to pick up Chinese and Pakistani immigrants who travel two at once in the trunk of her car. As a white woman, Ray will be left alone by the state troopers. They pick up the immigrants without a spoken word and cross the river where Lila is at home and Ray is an alien; then home, late, to the trailer and a supper of popcorn and Tang. The risks are enormous, but the reward is food for their children. Ray is both terrified and fearless.
Director Hunt sets the tone for her movie in the opening shot. By the time the camera travels from Ray’s feet to the top of her head, Hunt has given us the small details of her poverty. She is not alone in her trouble. On the road, Ray and Lila pass a seedy motel here, a gas station with a junk food counter there, until their lives and their landscape merge in gloom. In this setting Melissa Leo holds us still. Forgetting entirely that she is a fictional character, we are pulled into this frozen land of rural poverty by Leo’s creation of a tough woman who must play the cards she has been dealt. Ms. Leo is the perfect interpreter of director Hunt’s vision. Together, they give us a wrenching look at what mothers with few choices will do for their children.
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