The river in Courtney Hunt’s latest film, Frozen River, isn’t the only thing that’s frozen. The director’s portrayal of upstate New York is so unforgivingly cold and aesthetically bleak that it’s a marvel the movie theater stays warm. The cold, however, is the least of the character’s problems in Hunt’s directorial debut. Her film is the portrait of two single mothers struggling financially to stay afloat and finding solid common ground in the frozen river that serves as a passageway for the trafficking of illegal immigrants.
Veteran actress Melissa Leo plays Ray, a cashier at the Yankee-Dollar with two children and a handful of unpaid bills. Frequent close-ups of her lined and often makeup-stained face only underscore her seemingly hopeless plight; hopeless, that is, until Mohawk Indian Lila, played by Misty Upham, shows up. On a search for her gambling-addicted and missing husband, Ray has a violent encounter with Lila that turns into a symbiotic friendship. As a white woman, Ray is perfect for the role of driver in the smuggling equation, and Lila, of course, provides the connections. The third character in this trinity is the frozen St. Lawrence River which, in the winter, is an unpatrolled corridor within Mohawk territory, and therefore immune to New York State trooper authority.
In order to make ends meet at home and keep her deposit on a double-wide trailer, Ray concedes to the job and starts transporting illegal immigrants over the Canadian border into New York. Lila, meanwhile, has lost both husband and son – the former to death, and the latter to her mother-in-law – and is for some unknown reason trying to earn money in an effort to redeem herself in her family’s eyes. Lila’s history is frustratingly obscured, perhaps in order to maintain a focus on Ray’s living nightmare. But what audience members do know is that Lila is losing to her mother-in-law in a battle of the wills, and that she might never see her one-year-old son again.
Both characters are in it for the money, and yet, as the film progresses, the crude, financially-centered alliance between Ray and Lila becomes an exposÃƒÂ© on the difficulties of remaining ethical in an increasingly corrupt world, and of intense racial polarization. “What if they stop us?” Ray asks of the New York state troopers on her first trip across the border. “They won’t stop you. You’re white,” says Lila. It is a bitter response, sharpened, it seems, by a tense relationship between the Mohawks on the reservation and the New Yorkers in the surrounding area. At one point, Ray’s teenage son, T.J. (Charlie McDermott) encourages his mother to “kick some Mohawk butt,” and Lila’s initial dislike of Ray is linked to a general resentment towards whites and especially white policemen.
In the end, however, the two women have more in common than they think, and the climax of the film is not their apprehension by the authorities, but what they do in response. Their unlikely partnership has turned into a friendship which trumps their hardships and anxieties, and transposes their symbiotic companionship onto their personal lives.
Unfortunately, Leo’s brilliant performance as a mother at the end of her rope does not find a parallel in Upham’s acting. Upham’s attempt at stoicism turns her into an expressionless accomplice, allowing Leo, who is at times endearingly maternal and at others determinedly soldier-faced, to steal the show. The dearth of information provided about Lila’s life, and the fact that Upham’s portrayal is at times lacking in power, makes the basis of their eventual friendship less plausible. Their equality in a socially stratified world never quite materializes.
McDermott’s portrayal of Ray’s precocious and cynical son T.J., however, is surprisingly realized, and although he is a mere 15 years old, his early maturity is obviously a comfort to his mother’s forlorn character. Although his role is supporting, McDermott simultaneously provides a relief from the harsh reality of Ray’s adult life and implicitly underscores the chaos that results from such a reality: with no father figure present, T.J. is forced to step into the role of protector, taking care of his younger brother and also at times becoming the responsible equal of his own mother.
Ultimately, the most significant and ubiquitous character of the film is the frozen river itself: merciless and unpredictable, the river is both a fortunate chance and subject to chance. Like life, it is unfair, a macrocosmic symbol for Ray and Lila’s respective real-life obstacles. One can only hope that come springtime, the river as well as Ray and Lila’s lives, will flow in a more forgiving capacity than winter ever allowed.