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I lived on the Canadian side of the Mohawk Nation for a few years and am familiar with the tremendous amount of contraband which crosses the St. Lawrence River between the Canadian and American halves of this Nation. It is sad to see the way the need for money can create a disregard for our values and even for the lives of others.
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56 of 57 people found the following review helpful
Two hard, strong and desperate women smuggle illegal immigrants from Canada. Great film!Aug. 9 2008
- Published on Amazon.com
This 2008 independent film won the Grand Jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival. It is the first film by director Courtney Hunt and it was shot in just 24 days and a small budget in the upstate New York town of Plattsburgh, New York during the dead of winter.
This is the story of two women and takes place a few days before Christmas. Ray, played by Melissa Leo, has just been deserted by her husband. She's in her late forties and is the mother of a 15-year old and a 5-year old boy. She works part time in a dead-end job in dollar store and is almost penniless. She can barely feed her family, her TV is about to be repossessed and there seems to be no way she can make the balloon payment on a new double-wide trailer on which she has a down payment. Lila, played by Misty Upham, is a Mohawk Indian who lives on the reservation and works in the local bingo parlor. She is also penniless. Her husband is dead. Her baby has been taken from her by her mother-in-law, and she lives in a run-down trailer on the reservation. This reservation occupies parts of Canada as well as the U.S., and she can make some good money by driving across the frozen river between the countries and smuggling illegal immigrants into the U.S. But she needs a car. And Ray has the right kind of car with a large trunk.
The landscape is cold and bleak. Their car is a rickety Dodge Spirit. The women are strong, hard and desperate. They hate each other but soon realize that if they work together they might be able to improve their situations. The plot moves fast and is almost pure action. Their characterizations grow out of their situation. We see the different ways that Indians and whites are treated. We understand the hatred that the Indian woman feels for the white woman. We get a sense of the desperation of the illegal immigrants. At first there are Chinese immigrants. And later there is a Pakistani couple with an unusual package. Christmas is coming. The state troopers are on their trail. What will the outcome be?
Of course I can view this film in other ways. It was unique in that the two women were both so strong and that a Native American woman was cast in a role that was not a traditionally feminine one. Also, these women aren't beautiful and Ray's face is real - mottled skin and tiny lines and expressions that don't need words to convey emotions. It touched on several hot-button issues - illegal immigration, ethnic hatreds, desperate economic conditions in small upstate towns, and seriously hard choices some people have to make. However, I didn't think of all of this until the film was over. While it was on it was simply a fast-paced, action packed story that kept me on the edge of my seat. I loved it!
24 of 25 people found the following review helpful
The "must-see" independent film of 2008. Melissa Leo is a powerhouse!Sept. 27 2008
- Published on Amazon.com
FROZEN RIVER is not the sort of movie that will ever generate excited enthusiasm or exuberant praise. It is a movie of quiet power, and a reminder of what acting can really be like. It won't change lives or stir national debate. But it can remind us that movies have the power to show us, up close, how others live.
Set in upstate New York, right along the border to Canada, we meet Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo), a late 40-something mother of 2 boys, aged 15 & 5. She's sitting her beat up little car, in front of her seriously run-down tiny mobile home...obviously frozen in shock or anger or sadness over something she's seeing (or not seeing) in her glove box. Turns out her husband Troy, a problem gambler, has found her hard-earned stash of cash...the cash that was to make the initial payment on a new double-wide mobile home for her family. We soon learn that Ray Eddy is almost single-minded in her NEED to get this trailer for her family. For these very poor folks, it is a step into luxury...one that promises a better life for her kids and a Jacuzzi tub for her.
Her oldest son is often left to care for the younger kid, and he has a pretty good idea of just how broke his family is. He even turns to phone credit card scams to earn some extra money. But he's only 15 after all, and he might think he's pretty hardened, but he's not. He's also torn between anger at his mother (who he blames for driving his dad away) and anger at his father for gambling their money away and leaving home. While searching for signs of her husband, Ray Eddy meets Lily (Misty Upham) a belligerent, empty-faced Mohawk woman with problems of her own. She's recently lost her husband to drowning while he was running illegal immigrants across the frozen river that runs through Mohawk land between Canada and the US. Her mother-in-law has taken her infant son away, and Lily lives in a tiny camper in the woods, trying to scratch out a living, and trying to find a car to use for running illegals.
The two women forge a very rough partnership. Ray Eddy sees a chance to get back the money her husband squandered and Lily sees a chance to make some money to help provide for her child. To say that these two women are not well-suited to a life of crime is putting it mildly...but this is no caper movie about criminal schemes gone wrong (although some things DO go horrifyingly wrong). It is an exploration of poverty and a study of these two women and their relationship.
What's nice is that the film doesn't depict these two women becoming buddies, or comrades or even laughing together over a beer. They need each other to get what each of them wants, and they don't really care for each other all that much...or at least, they don't care to understand each other. Except you can imagine that driving illegal immigrants over a frozen river in freezing conditions, compromising your own values, just to take care of your kids DOES have an effect on Ray Eddy & Lily.
Thankfully, the film never preaches either. It isn't making a political point. These people are poor, and expect to be all their lives. No politician or political party is going to change this. We aren't asked to think, "ah, if only we could help these poor folks." We're asked to understand what people in these circumstances might do for their families.
The film manages to build the most incredible tension during its second half. I will NOT tell you the various things that happen. In a way, they could be deemed as being a bit too "Hollywood"...but the movie has earned your trust and drawn you in, that you don't see the developments as mere plot twists, but instead as the natural outcome of what these women go through. For a movie so quiet and unassuming...it sure had me on the edge of seat and filled with dread. It also has a truly satisfactory ending...something SO few movies can really claim.
There are a few problems with the film. Ray Eddy, despite all her fierceness and protectiveness, is pretty stupid with money. There are a couple of nagging loose-ends (what happens to the cars?). There is also a NY state trooper (Michael O'Keefe) who functions almost like a slow-witted Javier...that it to say, he's a convenient device who makes a couple of unlikely appearances. Also, I couldn't help wondering if Ray Eddy was totally ignoring programs that might have helped her, like food stamps.
But for every little nagging moment, there is a wonderful observation. My favorite example: Ray Eddy's family nearly misses their next payment on their Rent-to-Own TV. And despite the squalid conditions they live in, their TV is of the giant, widescreen variety. Everything else in their house is cheap and/or broken, but hey, this is America and we've got to have our priorities straight! Sure, they're eating popcorn and tang for breakfast...but at least the cartoons are giant. The sad thing is...this observation is all too believable.
And let me also say that the performances are revelations. Misty Upham has the calm, stone-faced demeanor we often see in Native American characterizations...but she shows us in only the tiniest ways, what is going on beneath that exterior. Charlie McDermott plays the oldest son, and he's thoroughly convincing as a smart but naïve, angry but lonely 15 year-old. But best of all is the always remarkable Melissa Leo. Perhaps the best performer in 21 GRAMS, a movie packed with powerhouse work...Leo never ceases to be anything but down-to-earth and "un-actorly." She is the most unshowy of performers, yet her characters feel lived-in and alive. Never afraid to look haggard or lost, Leo also never fails to show grit and determination in a way that is believable. Sadly, in much the way that Molly Shannon was overlooked a couple of years ago for her work in YEAR OF THE DOG, I imagine Leo will be overlooked come this awards season.
But I hope you don't overlook FROZEN RIVER. For a movie with such bleak subject matter...it is surprisingly uplifting and starkly beautiful. And with little bad language and no sexual material...I'd encourage you to let your kids aged 14 and up take a look and see how a movie NOT playing in the local multiplex can be so satisfying on a completely different level.
23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
Poverty Leads to Desperate ActsFeb. 21 2009
- Published on Amazon.com
Melissa Leo plays the character of Ray in this fantastic independent film. Married to a gambling addict who has run off shortly before Christmas, Ray is a single parent being hounded by creditors. All she has in the house for her two children to eat is Tang and some chips. She works at the 'Lucky Dollar' store and has been hoping for two years for a promotion that is not going to happen.
Melissa and her two children live in a single-wide trailer that is falling apart. Her dream is to get a double-wide. Circumstances lead her to meet and hook up with a young woman from the Mohawk Nation. Together, they engage in smuggling illegal aliens from Canada to the U.S. Ray plans to stop as soon as she has enough money for the double-wide. However,it looks like the police are on to her. Will she be able to make the last runs to get enough money?
Ray and her young friend begin their relationship as adversaries and as the movie progresses they begin to connect, each appreciating the other and developing trust and respect.
The movie shows the bleakness of the reservation and the adjoining town in upstate New York. The poverty is more like a third world nation than the U.S.
I loved the movie. Its understatement let the characters evolve through their actions in dire circumstances. We learn about them by what they do and how they respond to others. There are no special effects, just the beauty of the photography and the depth of character development. This movie is a gem which I highly recommend.
17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
Though the River is Frozen, the Film Heats Up - 4.5 / 5 StarsJan. 22 2009
- Published on Amazon.com
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.
44 of 52 people found the following review helpful
Two Strong Women Battle Others to Make a Life For ThemselvesAug. 12 2008
- Published on Amazon.com
"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.