"Frozen River", the new independent film directed by Courtney Hunt, opens with an extreme close up of Melissa Leo (TV's "Homicide: Life on the Street", "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada") who stars as Ray Eddy, a woman living with her two kids in a single wide trailer in upstate New York, near the Canadian border. As the camera lingers on her face, slowly pulling back we see every line and wrinkle and watch as she nervously smokes a cigarette, a tear falling from her eye. This image is very powerful and helps to establish her character and set up the entire film.
How often can you say that?
Ray is crying because her deadbeat husband, an Indian with a gambling problem, just took the money Ray has saved for the down payment on their new double wide, complete with a fancy tub. When she realizes her husband has run off with the cash, the morning the double wide is due to be delivered, this is the final straw. She isn't about to let him ruin her dreams. Again. Her older son, TJ (Charlie McDermott) is old enough to know what is going on and tells her he can get a job, fixing computers. She won't hear it and demands that he finish school and help her look after her youngest son, Ricky (James Reilly). Ray sets out to find her husband and their other car. She spots the car in the parking lot of an Indian Bingo Parlor and tries to go inside. Soon, Lila (Misty Upham), a young Indian woman exits the bingo hall and gets into Ray's other car. Ray follows Lila back to her trailer and finds out her husband abandoned the car when he got on a bus the previous night. Lila is interested in buying the car, but Ray won't do it. Then, Lila tells her why she needs the car, to smuggle illegal aliens over the border from Canada. Ray won't have any of it, but Lila explains they are in Mohawk territory. It isn't illegal. And Ray won't be arrested because she is white. Ray decides to help her, because she needs the money for their new home.
Written and directed by Courtney Hunt, "Frozen River" tells an interesting, unique story in a very real way, helping us to understand the characters and what they are doing. When you leave the theater (or turn off the DVD player), you will feel the impact of this story. It is that good.
Melissa Leo's career is filled with independent films and television work. She had a role on the memorable "Homicide: Life on the Street" as a detective and member of the squad who dealt with some of Baltimore's grittiest cases. She had a memorable role in Tommy Lee Jone's "The Three Burials of Melquaides Estrada". Every time I see her act, I am drawn into the performance by the quality she infuses in the role. Every time I see her, I wonder why she hasn't become a bigger star. But some of the best actors working in film are perfectly content to make independent films, appearing in roles that challenge their abilities and make them better actors. Melissa Leo is an example of this; her career has been varied, unusual and interesting. Is she the highest paid actress working in Hollywood? I doubt it. But how much money do you actually need? Also, Leo is not a beautiful bombshell like so many of the actresses who currently top-line A-List features. And it's sad that so much of what makes an A-List actress these days is how 'hot' they look. Would Bette Davis or Katherine Hepburn even get a second glance in this day and age? I'm not sure.
From the moment Ray sets out on her quest to find her husband, she begins a juggling act. As TJ chides her about searching for his father, she has to squash his offer to take on some work, he can help generate some income for the family, so they don't have to eat popcorn and tang for breakfast again. Even though she tells him she is not going out to search for her husband, his father, this is exactly what she does; she goes hunting for the dead beat. But she is looking for him for a reason that has finally come clear. After all of the years of his gambling problems, his inability to provide for his family, Ray's years of working at the Yankee Dollar, she is trying to find him to retrieve the money she has worked so hard to save, so she can still get their new double wide. And her new bathtub.
When she can't find him, she talks to her boss at the Yankee Dollar and tries to get him to finally make her an Assistant Manager. When that doesn't work, she has little choice and finds Lila. They travel across a frozen river, to another Mohawk outpost on the Canadian side. Driving up to a shack, an Indian comes out, meeting them at their car with an envelope of cash. They pop the trunk and two Chinese men hop inside. Back on the New York side, they stop at a little motel. Another man gives them an envelope and they pop the trunk again letting the two Chinese men go with this new man. Ray is happy. Another couple of runs and she will have re-earned the money her husband ran off with. She doesn't think about the two men and what they might be doing. Later, after another run, Lila fills her in on some of the details. Ray pauses for a moment and realizes the end result; her family's new home outweighs what she is doing.
But these runs are taking another toll. And a State Trooper (Miles O'Keefe) stops her and tells her that they suspect Lila of being a smuggler.
Lila is also an interesting character. Stoic and largely unemotional, she is doing these runs to earn money as well. Because of her poor eyesight, she has difficulty with most jobs, so this is a good alternative. But the head of her tribe frowns on the practice of smuggling, because it brings unwanted attention to their tribe. So they get the word out. Don't sell a particular type of car to Lila (basically, anything with a trunk) and try to find her some work, keep her honest. But honest work creates a slow stream of revenue.
Misty Upham is very good as Lila. She gives you a real sense of the pain and trial her life has been. We learn very quickly she also has a baby, a one year-old boy who was taken from her by her mother-in-law. She is trying to make enough money to help provide for the child, a child she never gets to see. This makes her cold and unemotional and provides further evidence she has been beaten down by everyone and everything her entire life. As she and Ray begin to make these runs, they start to talk and learn about each other. You might say they become 'friends', as friendly as the two women can be towards one another. They aren't ever going to go shopping together, or share cosmos, but they will become friends.
Charlie McDermott plays TJ, Ray's oldest son. Even though TJ knows his dad is a deadbeat, he still comes to his defense, trying to defend him when his mom continues to badmouth his dad. She even makes a comment about this and quickly dismisses it because she knows her son will never completely see his dad for what he is.
TJ is actually a really good kid and cares deeply for his younger brother. And even if he doesn't want to admit it, he knows his mom is right about his father. But he can't let her know that, he's a teenager and it would give his mom too much power if she knew he knew she was right. As Ray begins to make these border crossings, she leaves TJ at home to watch Ricky on a more frequent basis. This leaves TJ with a lot of time on his hands, because Ricky is pretty content to simply stare at the television for hours on end. As the two boys spend a lot of time unsupervised, TJ has to cook for his brother and make sure he stays safe. But as there is frequently little, if anything to eat in the house, and TJ is barely a teenager, both of these tasks prove daunting at times and his attention drifts.
As Ray and Lila continue to make these runs, Ray continues to maintain she is only going to do enough of them to raise the money for her down payment. And as Christmas is just around the corner, she would love to have the new doublewide in time for the holidays, so she becomes more persistent in making runs. And wants to make a run, across the frozen river, even after a heat wave has probably compromised the ice. She just needs one more, and she has a gift for her kids no one thought possible.
Ray is so determined the make this happen, she ignores the warning signs. A state trooper (Miles O'Keefe) shops at the Yankee Dollar and watches the road they use after crossing the river. One day, he stops by her trailer to tell her that he knows Lila is a smuggler. Most people would take the warning and quit. But the money is too easy and her goal is too close. So she continues. Then, when the heat wave hits, she insists on completing the run. The cargo also changes, giving her pause.
Over the course of the film, we learn a lot about both Indian culture and the ease with which people can smuggle others across the border. "Frozen River" is not an After School Special, but the authenticity of these moments helps to inform the narrative and make it seem more real and touching.
"Frozen River" is what an independent film should be. A story about people who could be real, making real decisions, real mistakes and painting a picture of life that we might not otherwise know about or see.
"Frozen River" is a very good film. You shouldn't miss it if for no other reason than Melissa Leo's performance alone.