Director Courtney Hunt; Release date: 17 July
Frozen River, directed by Courtney Hunt, is a gritty and captivating contemporary drama, based on fact, that depicts the escalating and desperate situation of single mother Ray Eddy, played by Melissa Leo.
We are first introduced to Ray in the quiet of the morning, before her two sons have woken, upon the discovery that her husband has left her, taking with him the down payment for a new mobile home the family were saving up for. In her confusion and grief we are shown a woman embittered by a set of difficult circumstances, but refusing to consider the possibility of giving up. The acting in this first scene as Ray contemplates her new situation is subtle, but it gives the film a powerful opening.
Set along the US-Canadian border of upstate New York, this film shows how Ray, in order to provide for her children, slowly becomes embroiled in the very shady world of smuggling illegal immigrants into the US from Canada, with accomplice Lila (Misty Upham), a Mohawk woman who lives in the local reservation that runs along the border. Frozen River shows how the two parents risk everything to provide for their families, or merely to hold them together.
Both characters are shown to be hardened by their experiences of life: profoundly human and at the same time, in different ways, very strong. Through the contrast of their differences, Hunt creates an interesting dynamic between the two women. One, Lila, has suffered all her life from racist discrimination from both the white community near the Mohawk reservation and the local state troopers; the other, Ray, has been struggling to make ends meet while at the same time dealing with her husband's addictive nature. Both characters are shown to have no choice but to dip into a very dark world in order to survive. The midwinter, snow-ridden setting of the film does nothing but back up the harrowing sense of struggle.
However, this gripping atmosphere doesn't make Hunt a sensationalist. Throughout the film a sense of pragmatic domesticity, especially on the part of Ray and her responsibilities as a parent, is never forgotten. This duality of mundane everyday life mixed with the sometimes terrifying illegality of the smuggling world continues throughout the film. But it maintains a balance of optimism and realism to its very end: optimism about the strong human compassion of those brought down by struggle, and realism about what people come up against while living on the breadline.
Although Hunt manages to successfully show the reasons why people take up smuggling in order to survive, the argument behind illegal immigration is never explored. However, I think that the main focus was always supposed to be on those committing what some people consider a crime, rather than the moral or political implications of the crime itself.
I definitely recommend Frozen River, though perhaps not after a particularly long or difficult day. It is sometimes a dark film, but deeply engrossing and thought-provoking. It explores at length the extent to which people under pressure will go to risk everything and to survive.