Veteran and extremely underused actress Melissa Leo delivers a powerful, tour-de-force performance as Ray, a mother just abandoned by her lowlife, gambler husband several days before Christmas in Northern New York state. It's cold, very cold; the kind of cold that even the tiniest hole to the outside world can turn any home into a fully functional freezer. This is experienced worse more than anyone by Lila (Misty Upham) early on in the movie after Ray discovers her stolen car in the hands of this young Mohawk girl. Both women have heartbreaking back stories that are revealed throughout the movie and both are in the same boat; their flat broke.
Ray needs to make the down payment on a doublewide trailer for she and her two sons. Lila has reasons too that I won't go into for it will spoil some of the more dramatic elements of the plot.
Lila has already been arrested for smuggling illegal aliens over the frozen Hudson River into America from Canada several times, but she knows there's money in it. When Ray hears of this she jumps in for some fast cash.
The point of this movie is not illegal immigration; it's not really even about relations between Native Americans and whites, though both are depicted. The overall tone of this film is survival and what people are willing to do to survive, to put food on the table and keep a roof over their families' head. Ray has been working part-time at the same dead-end job for over two years but is refused full-time work. Lila pays out money to senior citizens playing bingo at the local VFW. What gives this film even more depth is that these women have so many opportunities to steal money easily (Ray can take it out of the cash drawer and Lila could steal it from the half-blind Bingo players) but neither do. They are both hardworking people willing to risk, not only their lives, but their freedom to perform work that pays; Ray and Lila don't want handouts.
"Frozen River" can be seen as a drama, which it is; but it can also be viewed as a thriller (the last forty minutes or so are as suspenseful as any big-budget Hollywood blockbuster). However, it is ultimately a story of people, people with their back to the walls that are willing to do anything for some breathing room.
Supporting roles by Charlie McDermott (as Ray's oldest son), Mark Boone jr. (as a malevolent human trafficker) and Michael O'Keefe (as a nosy state trooper) are believable and only add to this strong film by Courtney Hunt in the best debut since Patty Jenkins with 2003's "Monster". Her solid directing from her original screenplay (and a miniscule million dollar budget) turns "Frozen River" into one of the best films of 2008 and giving Melissa Leo the chance to shine in the finest performance from an actress this year.