Frozen River

2008, Movie, R, 97 mins


New York-based filmmaker Courtney Hunt makes a strong feature debut with this strikingly authentic, socially conscious crime drama about a struggling mother who turns to a dangerous line of work when she's abandoned by her deadbeat husband.

Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo), a hard-working mother of two, wakes up one week before Christmas to discover that her husband, chronic gambler Troy, has decamped with both the car and the money they'd been saving for down payment on Ray's dream house: a three-bedroom doublewide. Ray tells her youngest son, 5-year-old Ricky (James Reilly), that daddy has left on a business trip, but 15-year-old TJ (Charlie McDermott) knows his dad is probably blowing the money at some reservation casino and wants Ray to drag him back home. Fed up with Troy, Ray refuses, but she does need the cash and the car, which she finds parked outside a bingo parlor. The driver, however, is not Troy but Lila (Misty Upham), a young Mohawk woman who claims the car was abandoned at the bus station. Lila doesn't want to hand over the keys, even after Ray starts waving a gun around, but she tells Ray that if she needs cash so badly, Lila knows a guy who pays good money for cars with button-release trunks. His name is Jimmy (Dylan Carusona) and lives on Mohawk land on the Canadian side of the St. Lawrence River -- a boundary that isn't recognized by the Mohican tribe or patrolled by the U.S. Border Police. But to reach him, Ray will have to drive her car across the frozen river -- Lila assures a nervous Ray that at this time of year it's thick enough to hold them. When they finally reach Jimmy, Lila grabs Ray's gun, Jimmy stuffs a Chinese man into the car's trunk, and Ray realizes the cash transaction that's going down has nothing to do with selling a car: It's about human smuggling. But being white in a region where the police are focused on the Native American population means Ray makes it all the way to the motel where they're to drop off their cargo without incident. Lila refuses to split the take -- she considers it Ray's payment for the car that's rightfully hers -- so Ray insists on a second run. With more cash in her pocket than she'll ever earn from working part-time at the Yankee Dollar Store, Ray can finally afford to feed Ricky and TJ something other than popcorn and Tang. And after a few more runs, she might even have enough for that doublewide, if she isn't caught by the police or trapped by the St. Lawrence River first.

Expanded from an earlier short that also starred Leo and Upham, Hunt's feature is a tense, thematically rich crime film with timely resonances. Hunt's screenplay touches on terrorism, homeland security, Native American autonomy and the plight of an underclass quietly starving to death on America's margins. Leo, a remarkable actress best know for role on Homicide: Life on the Street, makes it all work: From the exhausted look around her eyes down to the toe tattoo, she's perfectly cast. Leo makes short work of the very notion of "trailer trash" and lends dignity to the dreams of a woman willing to do anything to keep her family together -- it's an extraordinary performance in a fascinating film. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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