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)
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