It’s rare to see a film that sets up a world both extremely recognizable and rarely seen, and rarer still when it turns out to ask moral questions without preaching. In her debut feature Frozen River, Courtney Hunt creates a story that serves simultaneously as a thriller and an insightful examination of the line between morality and necessity – one that Hunt, who went to Northeastern Law before becoming a filmmaker, has conceded is fine.
The story unfolds during an Upstate New York winter: pipes are freezing, highways are icy with grey snow, and Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo), a mother of two pinching pennies in a go-nowhere job at the Yankee Dollar, has just been left by her husband, a gambling addict headed to Atlantic City with their savings. When she tries to find him – after feeding her sons the only meal she can afford (popcorn and tang) – she meets a local Indian named Lila (Misty Upham) who is hoping to use Ray’s husband’s Dodge Spirit to smuggle illegal Chinese and Pakistani immigrants across the Canadian border.
Ray unwittingly drives Lila through her smuggling route across the river of the title. When she sees the money (a lot more than Yankee Dollar) she offers to do it again. The relationship that develops between the two woman, both coping with family struggles race regardless (Lila is also a mother trying to get custody of her infant son), is prickly and suspicious with the potential for violence, but they need each other – Ray’s planning to buy a new house for her family, Lila can’t see well enough to count the cash immigrant handlers toss through the window of the car. Ray is also white, so the local police aren’t as likely to stop her, while Lila is presumably protected from the law by the Indian Reservation she’s thisclose to being thrown off of.
The desperation that drives Frozen River is fiercely embodied by Leo, who gives her Ray tattoos and wrinkles and an affinity for bath salts and a deep, obvious love for her two sons (the elder, terrifically portrayed by Charlie McDermott, has his own not-so-lawful way of raising money to buy his younger brother Hot Wheels for Christmas). She’s also a borderline racist and a liar but we still sympathize with her, because she’s an underdog survivor with the ability to navigate an icy river with two immigrants squeezed into her trunk, while smoothly telling McDermott she’ll be home late. This is one of the best performances I’ve seen all year, and if it doesn’t get nominated for an Oscar I might consider never tuning in again.
That the movie has political/racial implications is obvious. Fortunately Hunt, who has written complex characters for even the lesser-seen players (Michael O’Keefe’s sheriff is far from a stereotype), and who bares tragedy down on her protagonists without suffocating them, is careful to make the story about relationships rather than politics. Frozen River began as a short film about two women – one white, one Indian, based on smugglers the filmmaker actually met – accidentally tossing a sleeping Pakistani infant out onto the ice. By the time Ray worries about bombs and performs this pivotal action, we’ve already come to know the women so well we’ll follow them and root for them no matter what.