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.