Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Film review: Frozen River

Director: Courtney Hunt
Cast: Melissa Leo, Misty Upham
Country: USA

In the small town of Massena in upstate New York, snow and desperation decorate the harsh landscape of Mohawk territory. Ray Eddy is tired, and the few tears that escape from her inner turmoil as she contemplates a future in which her husband has left, taking with him their savings for a new home, betray her wrinkled and hard complexion. With 15 and 5-year-old boys waiting back inside their trailer abode, the newly made single mum Ray has only a cigarette to mourn her lot in life...

Frozen River is a film founded in the real world: bleak, bitter and hanging to hope by the thinnest of threads. Having first told the story as a short film, director Courtney Hunt has produced an impressive feature debut that just manages to skate on the right side of earnest without sliding onto the thin ice of contrivance. It is thanks in no small part to the character of Ray and her brilliant realisation by long-time character actress Melissa Leo (Homicide: Life On The Street fans will remember her as Kay Howard).

With her gambling-addicted husband having done a runner just a few days before Christmas, Ray is left with the prospect of supporting her two kids on her part-time dollar store wage and finding the four grand needed to pay for their new home before losing the entire deposit. Considering her kids are living on popcorn and the TV is about to be repossessed, things aren’t looking too good.

Circumstance and a dose of conspiratorial fate throw Ray into the mix with Lila (Misty Upham) a local Mohawk woman involved with smuggling racket bring illegal immigrants across the Canadian-US border, through the Mohawk Indian reservation. The money is good and the risks are high. Forgetting for a moment the penalty for getting caught by Johnny-Law or the scumbags Ray must deal with, the smuggling is predicated on a drive across a river, frozen in the winter months, that splits the Mohawk territory. While the river crossing might be a slap-in-the-face symbol of just how desperate these women are; it is also an effective narrative tool to keep the audience on the edge of its seat throughout, with the prospect of catastrophe never more than a patch of black ice away.

Ray and Lila predictably form a sort of reluctant partnership forged out of the commonality of their respective situations. Lila too is a single mother whose child has been taken from her by family and that might be too manipulative of our affections but for performances of Leo and Upham, which are so strong that they drive the narrative forward regardless, compelling our attention and empathy.

Not enough can be said of Leo’s portrait of as a mother desperately trying to protect her cubs – Ray isn’t the most likeable person as she demonstrates little concern for the lives they’re transporting across the river, holding at least a hint of bigotry. That we never emotionally disconnect from Leo is the film’s greatest strength. Leo is up against some extremely tough competition for the Best Actress Oscar gong, that she is nominated at all in such company is deserving enough and of Streep, Hathaway and Jolie, it is Leo who might have the best chance of causing an upset to Kate Winlet.

This is a powerful debut from Hunt and an emotionally compelling tale. Make no mistake though, Frozen River is one of those films that hinges on a remarkable performance and the realisation of a fictional character so completely into the real world.

Frozen River is on limited Australian release from February 19.
This review first appeared in 3D World issue 947.