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Frozen River ****

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The opening shot, the structural comma, the deepest symbolic figure in dark and light, the frozen river is a transcendent motif throughout this exquisite, pragmatic meditation on motherhood, worldhood, trauma and the everyday. The first film by Courtney Hunt, Frozen River is a realist account of two women’s personal maternal struggles under immense socio-economic pressure. It bears the hallmark of a work long in gestation, so subtle the nuance, so transparent in form, and so potently universal in implication. These are the characteristics one expects from a Terrence Malick picture, and indeed, Hunt spent many years working on it. A lawyer by training, she went to study film at Columbia in the mid-1990s, and spent the next fourteen years giving birth to Frozen River. And it shows.

Frozen RiverIt is difficult to consider Frozen River within the categories of entertainment media. Clearly it makes more sense within the world of art film and intelligent independent cinema. It is not, however, standard Sundance fare. Technically, it may have a lot in common with recent overrated hits of American independent film, but its content (literary, aesthetic, symbolic) overwhelms and supersedes this categorization. Transcendent is definitely the operative term, and Malick a suitable reference point. As with all of his films, Frozen River takes the natural world as a counterpoint, a universal backdrop to the interaction and collision of human worlds. Individual worlds, the lives of mothers struggling against poverty, recession, repossession, wayward or stolen children, single parenthood. Cultures, of white working class Americans, and excluded underclass Mohawks. Of personal imperatives and the world of the law.

Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo) is the mother of two boys, 15 and 5, whose father has absconded with their savings (meant to pay for a bigger trailer to house themselves) just before Christmas. He, a lapsing gambling addict, is absent throughout the film – a strong signal that we are party first and foremost to the world of Ray as lone wolf, a stoic fighter entirely oriented around her children’s well-being. But she is trapped in a low-paying job with no hope of promotion (despite her consistent assertions to the contrary, required to satisfy all parties who demand money of her). And they look set to loose their new home if she cannot come up with the cash before Christmas.

Frozen RiverBut her path crosses that of Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham), a young woman from the nearby Mohawk reservation. Located on the border between Canada and the United States, it is a hub both for low-key gambling and hardcore smuggling. An equally strong, but in some ways less fortunate mother, Lila turns to shipping cigarettes and then illegal immigrants (both industrious and enslaved) into the US. With poor eyesight and questionable literacy, she is trapped in a world of unemployment, near homelessness and worst of all, the absence of her child, stolen by her mother-in-law.

When these motherly forces collide in pursuit of their analogous goals, we have an opportunity to see both their forceful and gritty depth of character, and their eventual embrace of one another. Their worlds enmeshed, together smuggling in order to save their families, they come up against societal forces of kinship and law. The worlds of the Native Americans and of the United States come into stark relief when watching their respective police forces: a tribal law enforcement officer kindly asks an apology of Eddy’s eldest son for scamming the credit card details off an elderly reservation citizen; the State Troopers mass at the border to imprison the smuggler mothers, setting an example to deter other such desperate (but often malevolent) crooks.

Frozen RiverWhile this material could easily become sensational with an insensitive treatment, Hunt brings the extraordinary within the fold of everyday life. She somehow brings it into even starker relief, while remaining true to our mode of assimilating such events. Eddy wields a revolver as the most common-place piece of equipment; handles the moral dilemma of criminal activity and a terrifying near-manslaughter with the rational pragmatism of any non-hysteric thrown into such a situation. And all of this applies equally to Littlewolf.

The river which divides the States and the reservation is frozen over, and this is the bridge by which these women smuggle, through which their worlds become coextensive, and which becomes a life vein sustaining their roles as mothers. Yet it has menace and promise of fracture in the dark of night. Frozen River is not, strictly speaking, an entertaining proposition. But it is a tour de force of smart ideas in punchy aesthetic packages. And it also contains the most remarkable performances, particularly from the much-lauded Melissa Leo. From Dustin Hoffman’s praise to her Oscar nomination, Leo’s work here has been recognized fully. But I would like to highlight the extent to which its power is captured in her face. Following the opening shot of the river is a close-up (face crumpled, hardened, yet malleable and affective, the archetype of tough motherhood) as she sits in contemplation, having just discovered her husband’s disappearance. She looks almost too pained, but this potential incongruity is diffused as she drags on a cigarette in the most evocative figure. And again, later, she sits smoking a cigarette; this time, before a mirror: wisps of smoke tracing her reflection like a veil of tears.

This is a really beautiful piece of work.


Frozen River, Dir. & Writ. Courtney Hunt, Star. Melissa Leo & Misty Upham, Cohen Media Group, USA, 2008


Written by James P. Campbell

30/07/2009 at 21:08

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