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.
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.
As I recently wrote about the extraordinary Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy, 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.