In the very first shot of Melissa Leo in Frozen River, the camera pans a close-up from her shoe up to her face filled with lines and wrinkles. Few actresses (and actors) would want a close-up like that in the current day and age of Botox and face lifts and it is rewarding to see a movie that treats such a face in a simultaneously natural yet elegantly artful light. The first-time writer/director Courtney Hunt uses it to open a vividly compelling portrait of people who live in or around Mohawk territory at the U.S.-Canadian border and whose sole drive for their criminal decisions are to ensure that food is on the family table.
We soon understand that Leo’s character, Ray Eddy, was crying in her car in that close-up because her husband has run away with most of their saved income to feed his gambling addiction. Her dream of moving to a bigger trailer home has thus shattered and she and her 15-year-old son T.J. (Charlie McDermott) and five-year-old son Ricky (James Reilly) are literally living on popcorn and Tang for all three meals until her next payday at a half-time job at a Yankee Dollar store. T.J. starts suggesting that he should get a job too, but Ray, as a mother, understandably cannot bear to see him leave school.
As she later discovers her husband’s car being driven by someone else, she follows it and meets the other lead character in the film, Lila Littlejohn (Misty Upham), a Mohawk who also lives in a trailer all by herself. Her mother-in-law has recently taken her one-year-old son away from her and she seems hardly liked or respected by her fellow Mohawks on the reservation. While Lila mainly works at the bingo game hall, she is also involved in the business of smuggling illegal immigrants across the border through a river of ice, which the policemen cannot chase through because it is just right above Mohawk territory and the inhabitants keep strict sovereignty over it.
Initially, she lures and tricks Ray into a smuggling job at gunpoint (with Ray’s own gun that is snatched away) since she believes that Ray, being a Caucasian woman, will be less likely to be stopped by a state trooper (Michael O’Keefe) on the way after crossing the river. With the $1200-$2000 that is paid for each trip, however, and considering that her boss at Yankee Dollar has for years refused to upgrade her job to full-time status in favor of a younger female employee, Ray figures the smuggling will pay far better. She hence goes back and the two women strike an unusual alliance driving Chinese and Pakistani people across the river in the trunk of their car.
The “alliance,” if you can even call it that initially, is especially fascinating because it is formed not by any soft sentiment or sympathy but on a common need. The two women know they are together in this illegal endeavor simply because they are both driven by economic desperation and there is no sharing of secrets about their separate troubles. Their very sparse conversations during the smuggling trips back and forth are all based on practicality or the dangers and the urgency of the situation itself. This is where the two actresses’ performances are so crucial and absolutely stunning because, almost entirely apart from the strictly pragmatic dialogue, they somehow manage to create an emotional entry into their growing turmoil and perhaps even a slowly growing bond.
This has been a good year for independent movies that cast character actors in lead roles and seek emotional subtlety over movie star value with The Visitor earlier and this film (and coincidentally, both films also grapple with the issue of immigration). Like Richard Jenkins in that other film, Leo’s face is probably more recognizable than her name, particularly to people who saw her on the TV show, Homicide: Life on the Street and in 21 Grams as Benicio Del Toro’s wife (look her up on IMDb). What she continually proves here even in the lead role is her willingness to play absolutely close to the bone and her consistent refusal to sacrifice authenticity for glamour. And she is matched scene for scene by Upham, who in some ways has the riskier challenge of making us look past her initial subterfuge and create a sense of empathy equal to Leo’s character.
The movie, which won the Grand Jury Prize in Sundance this year, is an impressive debut for writer/director Courtney Hunt. Beyond showing a keen visual eye for using natural light to paint a paradoxically, beautifully bleak landscape with her cinematographer, Reed Morano, she must have had an instinctive feel for this story reportedly based on real border smugglers living in upstate New York. In handling this material, she gains real power by mostly burying the emotions in the story’s situations rather than spelling it out in blunt dialogue. And the situations do not shy away from showing some feelings of prejudice that creep up as when Ray decides to dump what turns out to be an invaluable duffel bag belonging to the Pakistani couple, fearing “it might contain poison gas.”
So skillfully does Hunt paint her characters in the first two-thirds of her film that I probably could have done without some of the thriller elements towards the end. There are obviously some potentially fateful consequences for what the women do but the final developments and confrontations do feel stacked up and a bit too plot-heavy. Even as a thriller, however, the film avoids cheapening its story with unnecessary violence and, though a gun is fired on occasion, it is filmed in such a de-emphasizing way that sometimes only lets us just hear the shot rather than see a close-up of the gun itself.
Despite the almost complete lack of actual on-screen violence (and the film’s R rating for just a handful of curse words is really ridiculous), most people would probably compare the film to other movies about people making bad decisions such as Fargo and A Simple Plan. What sets Frozen River apart is how, in both its characters and tone, there is not a shred of strangeness or absurdity in its scenario, as what drives these people to criminal behavior is not greed or malevolence but simply survival. And as the movie reaches its quietly sad conclusion, we can only think back on that opening shot whose resonance only deepens to allow us to finally imagine our own closing image of Leo’s character.
Bottom line: Pretty close to brilliance.