Screenwriter: Courtney Hunt
Starring: Melissa Leo (interview), Misty Upham
Running time: 97 mins
Finally washing up on our shores, Frozen River is a moving character study that charts the desperate lengths two women reach once their maternal instincts kick in. Rightly nominated for two Oscars earlier in the year - for Melissa Leo's emotive performance and Courtney Hunt's compelling screenplay - this movie is a thoroughly rewarding and emotional ride that deserves to find an audience.
Frozen River's stark opening depicts a distraught middle-aged woman trying to apply mascara while tears stream out of her eyes, setting the tone for the raw and naturalistic mood of the ensuing events. It evokes the first shots in Twin Peaks and instantly envelops us in Lynchian mystery and intrigue. Who is this mournful woman? What has happened to her? Where is she going to go?
We soon learn that she is Ray (Melissa Leo), a mother of two left abandoned by her husband in their dilapidated trailer, struggling to raise money to keep away the bailiffs and ensure that there's something under the Christmas tree for her children. Ray forges an unlikely and uneasy alliance with alienated Mohawk Indian Lila (Misty Upham) as they team up to smuggle humans across the border via a river that's frozen over - and liable to crack at any moment. Avoiding the police patrols can be hazardous too.
Tragic events threaten to ensue as the ladies risk their lives - and those of others - for a few illicit bucks. Each has their own pipedream to keep them company, with Ray clutching a brochure of a dream home for the remnants of her family, while Lila simply wants to be reunited with her young child. They're both very much on the outside, stood in the bleak, wintry landscape, looking in.
Palpable tension simmers throughout the movie, with Ray and Lila stripping their psyches bare over a series of fractious car-bound conversations. Tragedy threatens to ensue at various stages and keeps us on the edge of our seats, because we slowly warm to these troubled characters. Surrounded by a cold and frosty environment, it's the inner warmth of their hearts that the script and multi-layered portrayals gradually bring out.
The movie touches on various social problems, with Lila's prejudicial attitudes towards other races particularly prominent. "I don't usually work with whites," she tells Ray early on. This is a precursor for her stance towards smuggling an Asian couple across the border, which prompts her to quip: "Let's hope they're not the ones that blow themselves and everybody up." It's a view that comes back to haunt her due to a genuinely shocking and unexpected twist.
Shot on digital camera with naturalistic lighting, a minimal score and raw performances, writer-director Courtney Hunt's movie is a fascinating, understated look at the human condition. Just when does it become acceptable to do wrong for the right reasons? Frozen River doesn't dictate any answers, but it moves us to confront and understand two mistreated women yearning for a better life.
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