“Frozen River” opens on a bleak and desperate scene: Ray (played by Melissa Leo) sits on the snowy porch of her crumbling trailer home, smoking a cigarette. A tear escapes down her cheek. It’s a week before Christmas, she’s got two kids, and her gambler addict husband has run off with the Christmas money.
And that’s the last moment of sentiment, or weakness, or self-pity that you’ll see in “Frozen River.” Because Ray’s a doer, not a complainer; she’s been dealt a pretty lousy hand in life, but she’s going to play every last card with conviction. She has a crummy job at the dollar store where her boss considers her a “short timer,” though she’s been there two years. Nobody stays two years at the dollar store if they have anywhere else to go. She scrounges in the couch cushions to find lunch money for her kids, and feeds them popcorn and Tang for dinner, because there is nothing else. This is rock bottom.
“Frozen River” takes place on (and near) the St. Regis Mohawk reservation, which straddles the US/Canadian border. It’s a bleak landscape, mostly flat and covered in snow; it feels a million miles from anywhere. When Ray goes looking for her husband at the bingo parlor, she meets Lil (played by native actress Misty Upham, from Skins and Expiration Date) who is trying to “borrow” her husband’s abandoned car. Lil is a loner; her husband is dead and her mother-in-law has stolen her baby, while the tribal council looked on. “They don’t get involved in family matters,” she tells Leo. She doesn’t trust Ray because she’s white, but she doesn’t trust anyone else, either. Lil knows how to smuggle people across the border, and can make a lot of money doing it. But she needs a partner – preferably a white partner who the cops won’t look twice at – because she’s been caught once already. Ray is uncertain about helping her, but desperate for money. “Just this once and then I’m done,” she says. “I’m not a criminal.” “It’s not a crime,” Lil replies. “It’s free trade between nations.” And so the two begin to work together, without trust or understanding. Naturally one thing leads to another, and each smuggling run becomes more dangerous than the last. The final run – on Christmas Eve – goes bad in about every way it can. And yet redemption lies at the end, for really, this isn’t a bleak movie about smuggling, it’s a movie about the need for family and support in a harsh world.
At times, “Frozen River” feels a lot like an early Coen Brothers film; “Blood Simple,” maybe, or “Fargo.” It is bleak and simple without being depressing or the least bit sentimental; its plot progresses methodically, and each decision feels inevitable, each choice like no choice at all. The director never asks the audience to pity or patronize its characters; in fact, it asks you to take them seriously, and consider what you would do in their situation. In an era when most indie films strive to be quirky and cute and seem to come from the suburbs, here is one that feels ten years old, and stands out for that reason. Its characters live on the ragged edges of the world, far away from any semblance of beauty or glamour, but their needs are real and powerful and they are driven to desperate acts. Poverty, addiction, and racism are all factors here, but this is not an artsy independent flick about these things. To the people in this movie, they’re as normal and non-negotiable as the barren, frozen landscape. Melissa Leo and Misty Upham are marvelous together, transmitting their fear, desperation–and the hesitant trust that begins to grow between them—in small, clear actions and words that feel powerful and real.
I found it interesting how “Frozen River” chose to handle issues of justice and law enforcement. Lil has been caught smuggling in the past; instead of sending her to jail, the tribal policeman (played by Michael Sky) informs the lone reservation car salesman that he’s not allowed to sell her a car with a trunk. Then he tries to find her a job. And when Ray’s son gets caught scamming an old lady, that same officer brings the lady to his doorstep, makes him apologize to her face to face, and promise to never do it again. In each case, the wrongs are made right, but relationships are fostered instead of terminated.
“Frozen River” is small, and plot-driven but with compelling characters; it has uncommon focus and never wanders from its central story. It is suspenseful and rich, and if you’re listening, it has things to say about family, poverty, justice, and race. It’s one of the best films I’ve seen in years.