Friday, April 3, 2009

Frozen River (2008)

Along with last year’s Chop Shop and Shotgun Stories, writer/director Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River is part of what seems to be an emerging trend in American film to document life as it plays out in specific regions of the country that remain untouched by the prevailing culture. These films seek to show the vast differences in life and experience in the U.S. by documenting parts of the country that might seem utterly foreign to the typical viewer. In Chop Shop it was New York City’s Iron Triangle, an industrial neighborhood in Queens filled with scrap yards and auto repair shops, and in Shotgun Stories it was decaying small-town Arkansas. Here, it is New York’s North Country, just near the Canadian border and a Mohawk Indian reservation, a frozen, gritty backdrop where everything seems dilapidated and on the verge of falling apart.

Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo), a cashier at a dollar store, is struggling to raise two sons and preserve a marriage with her perpetually absent husband, a drug and gambling addict who at the film’s start has disappeared with the money set aside for the family’s new double-wide trailer. While searching for him around town, Ray meets Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham), a Mohawk woman with a history of smuggling. Since both have fallen on hard times, the two soon begin transporting illegal immigrants into the U.S. by driving them across the frozen St. Lawrence river between two Indian reservations. It is dangerous and illegal, but it pays very well, and Ray sees it as the only way that she’ll be able to give her children a new home.

Like Chop Shop or Shotgun Stories, Frozen River avoids sermonizing about social issues in favor of focusing on the plight of its characters. Hunt could have used her film as a soapbox to decry American immigration policy or the treatment of Indians in the U.S., but she wisely lets the characters and their story speak for themselves. At its heart, this is a very simple film about the lengths a mother will go to to protect her children. Both Ray and Lila, who is estranged from her baby boy because of her criminal history, are only trying to make enough money to take care of their own. In Ray’s case it is only the simple, sensible dream of trying to get a new trailer that leads her to take bigger and more extreme risks as the story progresses.

As Ray, Melissa Leo gives what is undoubtedly one of the most engaging and unsentimental performances of last year. She’s a consistently strong actress who has appeared in countless projects over the years, but she seems born to play this role, and deserved the Oscar nomination she got for it. Her Ray is a tough, world-weary woman has been beaten down by life but refuses to give up, and is willing to go to the most extreme lengths to preserve her dignity and that of her family. Leo’s performance works so well because she never once asks for the audience’s pity-- she is simply a person doing what she has to do to survive. Misty Upham is similarly strong as Lila, who couldn’t be more different from Ray, but who bonds with her over the need to care for and protect her own child.

Hunt shoots all this in a blue tinted hue that lends itself to the cold and unforgivable landscape of the North Country. The film was shot on location, and the environment, as in the other films, is as much a character as the people who inhabit it. Here it is all trailers and deteriorating buildings, bitter cold and mud, an environment as inhospitable as the economic situations the characters find themselves in. The smuggling scenes are incredibly taut and well-realized, with the characters crossing the river’s thin layer of ice under cover of darkness and transporting illegals back across in the trunk of their car. It’s a deceivingly simple process that Hunt manages to keep adding new depths and higher stakes to, to the point that one of the final crossings manages to be one of the most nerve-wracking scenes of last year.

Despite all this, Frozen River never comes to close to being a thriller, just as it avoids being a message movie. Everything is too grounded and focused on Leo’s performance and the struggle of these characters. Because her goals are so modest and the stakes to reach them so high, Ray’s struggle ultimately has tragic implications. This, too, is a through line that seems to run through these new films. In Chop Shop, it’s the young boy’s dream of opening a food cart, in Shotgun Stories it’s the broader need to provide for family and come to terms with one’s own past. In each case the stories tell about a person’s struggle to improve their station in life, only to be be thwarted by outside forces that are forever conspiring against them. (I'm still waiting to see Ballast and Wendy and Lucy, both of which seem to be of this same ilk). It’s a story we've seen time and again, (The Bicycle Thief comes to mind), but these new films, especially Frozen River, have breathed new life into it by linking it to parts of American culture that previously have not been documented.

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