Frozen River

Frozen River movie poster


The title of Court­ney Hunt’s sus­pense­ful Frozen Riv­er refers to both a lit­er­al body of water sep­a­rat­ing coun­tries, and to the ten­u­ous bor­der between mere­ly scrap­ing by and true pover­ty. Melis­sa Leo was right­ly praised last year for her per­for­mance as Ray, a woman strug­gling to sup­port two boys in upstate New York. Her fam­i­ly appears to have been liv­ing beyond their means, even before her gam­bling-addict hus­band lit out with their sav­ings. If she doesn’t make the next pay­ments on their huge flatscreen tele­vi­sion (a ridicu­lous sight in their shab­by liv­ing space) or a cov­et­ed replace­ment dou­ble-wide home, they’ll lose the TV and the new home’s down pay­ment. The TV is exact­ly the sort of need­less extrav­a­gance that can put a check­book in the red, and the dou­ble-wide upgrade becomes a neces­si­ty when their exist­ing place looks unfit to sur­vive the bit­ter win­ter.

Melisso Leo in Frozen River

Cir­cum­stances push her into an antag­o­nis­tic part­ner­ship with Native Amer­i­can Lila Lit­tle­wolf (Misty Upham), whose sit­u­a­tion is, if any­thing, worse. Lila’s busi­ness is smug­gling ille­gal immi­grants over the tit­u­lar frozen riv­er on Mohawk land. The fact that there is a ques­tion as to whether the prac­tice is legal on a reser­va­tion is almost a point of pride. No one seems to know the actu­al law, but the per­ceived grey area in a way val­i­dates the Mohawks’ auton­o­my. Mak­ing a liv­ing this way is seen as pride­ful, nev­er mind the exploit­ed immi­grants that pay about $40,000–50,000 each to make the trip, either in cash or the oblig­a­tion to work it off as inden­tured slaves.

A still from Frozen River

As I recent­ly wrote about the extra­or­di­nary Kel­ly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy (read The Dork Report review), a sin­gle event such as a car break­ing down or a spouse leav­ing may be the tip­ping point lead­ing to home­less­ness. Both films fea­ture a woman on her own, strug­gling to meet press­ing debts while feed­ing lov­ing but needy depen­dents. But Frozen Riv­er suf­fers in com­par­i­son when watched back-to-back with Wendy and Lucy (as I hap­pened to), feel­ing over­writ­ten and with a neat­ly schemat­ic end­ing. With­out spoil­ing too much, a sur­pris­ing burst of expo­si­tion near the end explains the rules of almost too-con­ve­nient new sit­u­a­tion for Lila and Ray right as it’s hap­pen­ing.

Offi­cial movie site:

Buy the DVD from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.