Film review – Frozen River (2008)

frozen_river_12-low-resRay Eddy is a middle-aged woman whose gambling addict husband has just skipped town, abandoning her and her two children right before Christmas. Ray’s part time job does not pay nearly enough to cover day-to-day expenses let alone Christmas presents. While trying to track down her husband, Ray inadvertently becomes part of a people smuggling operation when she crosses paths with Lila, an American Indian woman from the nearby Mohawk reservation. Lila is also a mother who is struggling to make money so the pair reluctantly become partners, hiding illegal immigrants in the boot of Ray’s car to then drive them across the border from Canada to the USA. Frozen River is a decent independent film from debut writer/director Courtney Hunt. Despite initially looking like it will be a bleak exercise in socio-realist misery, Frozen River is an engaging and tense series of crisis points where the potential for tragedy is always around the corner.

The sparse digital photography suits the icy environment of the film and the growing friendship between the Ray and Lila is developed well. Both Melissa Leo (21 Grams, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada) as Ray and Misty Upham as Lila, a relative new comer with only a handful of television and independent film credits to her name, do a commendable job.  Hunt succeeds in depicting how difficult it is to escape poverty as well as exploring the powerful motivation that mothers have to do whatever it takes to care for their children. Also, by not labouring the issue, Frozen River should be commended for its depiction of the strained but not hopeless relationship between white Americans and American Indians.

Lila (Misty Upham) and Ray (Melissa Leo)
Lila (Misty Upham) and Ray (Melissa Leo)

In many ways Frozen River is a companion piece to Ken Loach’s recent It’s a Free World… Both films deal with sympathetic female protagonists who are driven to profit from the exploitation of illegal immigrants in order to keep their own heads above water. What lets Frozen River down is its troubling attitude towards the illegal immigrants that Ray and Lila take across the border. While Loach did not flinch from depicting the devastating results of exploiting illegal immigrants, Hunt has little interest in exploring the moral complexities of what Ray and Lila do. Frozen River does acknowledge that the immigrants are forced to work off their debts and strongly suggests that most of them wind up as slave labour or forced into prostitution. However, overall the audience are encouraged to care only about whether or not Ray and Lila get caught. The people smuggling aspect of Frozen River is simply a device to bring Ray and Lila together and develop dramatic tension. By under exploring the moral ramifications of what Ray and Lila do, Hunt badly detracts from what is otherwise an impressive film. 

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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