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Venturing Down the Slippery Road

Frozen River (2008)

Jory Sutton/Sony Pictures Classics

“Frozen River” works as only the best movies can. It tells a taut, thought-provoking story featuring characters moviegoers care about, and does so in a place we’ve never seen before. The story involves the smuggling of illegal immigrants; the characters are two single mothers; the place is Plattsburgh, N.Y.; and the movie works because of the forceful authenticity writer-director Courtney Hunt brings to her depiction of this milieu. This is a movie completely without contrivance, one anchored by Melissa Leo’s great, introspective lead performance and the camera’s unembellished, straightforward eye.

Ms. Leo plays Ray Eddy, desperate to keep her family of two boys afloat when her husband takes off with their savings. She has a part-time job at a dollar store that hardly earns her enough money to pay for food, let alone pay the bills on their small home. When she comes into contact with Lila (Misty Upham), a Mohawk woman who works as a smuggler driving over the frozen St. Lawrence River into Canada and back with human cargo in her trunk, she sees a possible way out of the morass.

The narrative unfolds as a complex contemporary morality play. On one hand, through its depiction of the rigors and indignities of the smuggling process, it evokes the post-9/11 xenophobia that has led to the erosion of a core American value: the acceptance of immigrants desperate for the chance at a better life. At the same time, it directly questions whether contemporary, fear-ridden, economically-stricken America is anything close to the idealized, golden land it may have once been and others might still believe it to be.

By making Ray her main character, Ms. Hunt drives home just how desperate things have gotten on this side of the border. Rather than leaving the illicit behavior to conventionally stereotyped criminals, Hunt makes the most eager and active smuggler a woman who would typically garner the least amount of suspicion. An ordinary, hardworking American mother, she faces such stark challenges – mountains of debt, a bitter, fatherless son and the looming possibility of eviction – that she finds herself driven to take part in the sort of risky, illegal conduct she might otherwise have condemned. Ms. Leo makes that desperation felt in every scene. She broods intensely, affects a convincing working-class demeanor and projects deeply felt levels of emotion in her facial expressions and hardened physicality.

The filmmaker enhances the overriding sense of Ray’s comprehensive isolation with the film’s predominant visual motif: wide shots of the still, silent, frozen river, with nary a living being around. As her car slowly, precariously makes its way across the ice-covered expanse the setting seems to swallow it whole. Even the scenes in town are notably bereft of life: montages of rubble-strewn backyards, small, decrepit trailer homes and tired cars sitting in a parking lot blur the divide between civilization and wilderness that is at the heart of “Frozen River” and so many other great works of literature. It makes sense, then, that Ray reacts incredulously when she learns that some people are so desperate to get to this place she cannot wait to leave.

It also becomes easy to understand the deeper reason, the one that goes beyond pure monetary gain, that Ray willingly risks everything to drive strangers on this treacherous journey. Amidst the death and decay so inherent in this cold, depressed place she gets the chance to directly touch other lives, to give people opportunities she never had and to bring some small measure of happiness into her little sliver of the world. Her best mothering instincts kick in. The more one thinks about the choices she makes the more apparent it becomes that “Frozen River” is not the dark, cynical venture it seems to be. Instead, it testifies to one of the most unique and enduring facets of human nature: the inherent drive to help others, even in a seemingly impossible fashion.


Opened on Aug. 1 in Manhattan.

Written and directed by Courtney Hunt; director of photography, Reed Morano; edited by Kate Williams; music by Peter Golub and Shahad Ismaily; production designer, Inbal Weinberg; produced by Heather Rae and Chip Hourihan; released by Sony Pictures Classics. Running time: 1 hour 37 minutes. This film is rated R.

WITH: Melissa Leo (Ray), Misty Upham (Lila), Charlie McDermott (T. J.) and James Reilly (Ricky).


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