The ice cracks under the sliding wheels of a large Dodge Spirit. Inside the car are two women smuggling illegal immigrants across the frozen river. Its ominousness makes this recurring image all the more beautiful.
Anyone would get lost in the impressive snowscapes of the US-Canadian border. Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo from 21 grams) has lived with her kids in a dilapidated trailer ever since her husband left. Native American smuggler Lila Littewolf (Misty Upham) lives as an outcast in a Mohawk reservation. Taking illegal aliens across the St. Lawrence River pockets them 1200 dollars, and Ray and Lila soon find themselves uneasy partners in crime, with the downtrodden hidden in the trunk of Ray’s car.
They need the money. Before Ray’s husband ran off, he signed the lease on a new home and now the next installment is due. There are boys waiting to be fed, missing their father and hoping for Christmas presents. Lila is too capricious to keep a regular job and also has a kid. ‘Stolen,’ she claims, by her mother-in-law.
frozen river won its director Courtney Hunt the jury prize at Sundance. It was preceded by a series of shorts, including a rehearsal for frozen river that already starred Misty Upham as Lila. Judging from Hunt’s self-assured direction on her first feature, the dry run paid off. Sentimentality is noticeable only for its absence, and although several shady criminals cross the women’s path, Hunt resisted the lure of turning her tale of smugglers into a thriller. This is a film about two women in which the protagonists do not become bosom buddies for a change. In fact, Ray and Lila barely exchange a word. Packed into the car in their thick winter coats they anxiously await their liaison on the opposite riverbank. The circumstances leave no room for bonding. Instead, frozen river deals with poverty, isolation and the will to survive. It’s a sad, well-told and unfortunately all too credible story.
Leo and Upham haven taken on challenging roles: Ray and Lila are terse, weary and stubborn. They feel no guilt over their activities, they just do what they have to do to survive, just like the people hidden in their trunk. When a Pakistani couple wants to cross the border, Ray’s only worry is that she may be taking terrorists into the country. To be safe, she chucks their one piece of luggage out the window — just in case it contains poisonous gas.
This final run leads them inexorably to the end of their smuggling route. It’s only afterward that we realize that the scene is set very symbolically on Christmas Eve. frozen river never comes across as intentionally constructed, but instead it makes you understand that these two women have been walking on thin ice for most of their lives.
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