Misty Upham and Melissa Leo in Frozen River

Melissa Leo is Ray Eddy, a working mother living in rural upstate New York. Raising two sons, a 5-year-old and a 15-year old, she’s married but her husband is a gambling addict. As the movie begins, he has run off with the money she’d set aside for a new double-wide trailer and she’s at risk of losing her deposit if she can’t come up with the down payment by Christmas.

Tracking her husband’s car to the bingo hall on the nearby Mohawk Indian reservation, she comes across Lila Littlewolf who first tries to steal the car and then offers to buy it. It seems cars with push-button trunks are prized by smugglers who sneak illegal immigrants from Canada across the frozen St. Lawrence River.

Repeatedly denied a promotion at her low-level retail job and seeing a way to make some quick cash to save her home, Ray forms an unlikely partnership with Lila in the dangerous smuggling business. Forced to contend with sketchy characters, the unpredictable dangers of the frozen river, and the ever-vigilant police, Ray is in a race against her creditors, hoping to save her family’s home before she’s caught or killed.

Winner of the Grand Jury Prize for Best Film Drama at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, writer/director Courtney Hunt’s debut film Frozen River is fairly simple with most of the interest stemming from the uncertainty over whether Ray will save her home or not. What sets the film apart from an ordinary TV movie of the week is the performance by Melissa Leo as Ray. Though Ray is beaten down, she’s not broken. In one scene carefully applying mascara in a mirror before going out, she’s a woman with a reserve of confidence and fight left in her. With one door shut in her face, she’s going to turn and open another one.

It would be easy to imagine a more glamorous A-List star taking off her makeup in an Oscar bid as Ray, but Leo is much more convincing as a working-class woman nearing the end of her tether. Years of stress and struggle are etched into her face and every line is exposed in close-up. It’s a performance utterly devoid of vanity and it could get the spotlight treatment come awards season. In Hollywood where actresses’ careers have an unnaturally shortened shelf life, it’s particularly gratifying to see the 47-year-old Leo given an opportunity to prove herself and she makes the most of it.

Other highlights include the performance by Charlie McDermott as Ray’s oldest son T.J. and the spare and melancholy soundtrack composed by Peter Golub and Shahzad Ali Ismaily.

It’s too bad then that the vehicle itself isn’t a little bit better. As written, the whole thing comes off a little flat. Beyond a quick turnabout at the end, Ray’s character arc is rather indistinct and so is that of her relationship with Lila (first-timer Misty Upham). The story just simmers along from one drawback to the next without ever digging deep into its characters or the promising milieu where blue collar whites butt up against reservation native Americans.

It’s disappointing, but it’s not a deal breaker. Though it never reaches great dramatic heights, Frozen River is worth a look just to see a terrific actress given a starring role that matches her ability. In an age when juicy female roles are difficult to come by, perhaps that’s enough.

Frozen River. USA 2008. Written and directed by Courtney Hunt. Cinematography by Reed Dawson Morano. Music composed by Peter Golub and Shahzad Ali Ismaily. Starring Melissa Leo, Misty Upham, Charlie McDermott and Michael O’Keefe. 1 hour 36 minutes. MPAA rated R for some language. 3.5 stars (out of 5)

10 Responses to “Review: Frozen River (2008) *** 1/2”

  1. Craig, is Melissa getting a nod for this or not?

    I genuinely value your opinion so I’d like to hear what you think.

    If she’s not, this looks like EXACTLY the kind of film I’d prefer to skip…

  2. Solid recap and perceptive review as always Craig. I am less enamored with the finished product (I gave it 2 and a half) but Melissa Leo’s performance is excellent, and as you say “since juicy female roles are hard to come by” your final rating has validity. And yes I agree that young Charlie Mc dermott did give a memorable turn as the troubled oldest son. I didn’t care as much for the score as you did, but again it’s all a matter of taste and perceptive. There is no right or wrong on that count.
    Indeed, I do agree that the writing is flat.

    Craig will answer your question Miranda, but as a blogger on this thread, if I can inject an opinion I do believe that Leo’s performance is at least worth a look-see, even if the film has some prominent issues.

  3. Miranda, Oscar is so far off my radar right now, I couldn’t tell you. Is she worthy? Sure. Will she get one? I don’t know. The year is still too young.

    Sam, I probably could’ve gone 3 stars, but I don’t like to nitpick the indies. It’s heart was in the right place anyway.

    Funny thing about the score is that it seemed kind of familiar. Was that your problem with it? Heard the same kind of thing in too many stark and bleak indie films?

  4. Craig, you’re guilty of reverse discrimination! (With regards to mainstream studio fare vs. indie fare.)

    I skimmed through the review, read bits and pieces here and there, all of which were terrific…

    My favorite part is you expressing your feeling of gratification for a woman at the age of 47 being given a leading role. It’s pretty disgusting when you think about how so many actresses are largely screwed once they hit the big 4-0, until and unless Hollywood calls them up in twenty-five years to play old ladies.

  5. Sam, OF COURSE you can give me your opinion about FR. You saw it, after all – and your POV is just as valuable to me as Craig’s.

    Thank you boys. I’m still on the fence about this one.

    But it hasn’t opened here. So I don’t have to worry about it in any defintive fashion as of yet….

  6. Craig, I do agree essentially with what you say here about the score–it all seems too pat-too familiar and stock, and this is primarily why I dismiss it when considering the film’s attributes.

  7. I am dying to see this…

  8. I liked what you said in the Watercooler Sam about “the scene”. ***SPOILER*** I assume you were talking about the abandoned baby. That seemed like it was sort of from out of nowhere and unneccesary. I also didn’t like the cop showing up on Christmas morning or the resolution of TJ’s stolen credit card number scheme ***END SPOILER***

    However, none of those things were quite deal breakers for me. In fact, they only really came to mind when you mentioned “the scene.”

  9. LOL Craig about that “scene!” And I likewise completely agree with you on that Christmas morning visit and the lack of resolution on the credit card scheme! We are definiely on the same page. Thanks.

  10. It’s nice to see so many actresses in their forties getting Oscar buzz right now – Leo, Streep, and Kristin Scott Thomas.

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