Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Film Review--Frozen River

Frozen River
written and directed by Courtney Hunt
starring Melissa Leo, Misty Upham, Michael O’Keefe, Charlie McDermott, Mark Boone Junior, James Reilly

Rarely has a film seemed so present. Through the performances of Melissa Leo and Misty Upham we are allowed to feel the anguish of economic deprivation and the aching sadness and hopelessness that such conditions necessitate. We are given the rarest gift: a film that takes nothing for granted and slowly, methodically develops to reveal a story about the primacy of motherhood and how desperate times often call for desperate measures. The film takes place in an area known at Mohawk Nation between New York and Quebec. The cinematography by Reed Morano is gorgeously rendered so that the landscape can be viewed as another character. The film just feels cold and lonely.

Poverty has grounded Ray Eddy (Leo) down for quite some time. She can barely afford to provide her two sons, T.J. (McDermott) aged 15 and Ricky (Reilly), aged 5, with lunch money. She feeds them tang and popcorn until she gets her next paycheck. Her deadbeat husband has absconded and so she goes to look in the one place she knows where to find him–a bingo hall. She notices his car but is not allowed to look around because she can’t afford to pay the five dollar admittance fee. Once outside a young Mohawk woman named Lila (Upham) is driving off in her husband’s car. She follows and after shooting a hole in the woman’s trailer the two women officially meet. This leads to a simple proposition where Lila convinces Ray that she can get more money than her car is worth from a smuggler. Before Ray can react, two Chinese men are hustled into her trunk and so this torturous adventure begins. Instead of accepting that she was tricked into this dangerous action where the pair drive across a frozen river that Lila claims she has seen semi trucks drive over, Ray continues to smuggle aliens from the reservation into the United States.

But this film is about so much more than simply these illegal activities. Lila has a son that has been taken away by her mother-in-law soon after Lila’s husband fell into the river so that they never found his body. She aches for her child but has all but resigned herself to never having him again. Ray wants only to give her sons a better life than the one that presently afflicts them. Ricky desperately wants a Tyco super set for Christmas but Ray is putting all her money into purchasing a double wide trailer for which she has put down a considerable payment but not nearly enough to secure the dwelling.

The tone in this film is quite melancholy throughout. There is a real sense of failure and misery that permeates every scene. But there is also hope and the belief that it is possible to turn things around if only Ray could make just a bit more money running immigrants into the states. There is a leisurely pace to all this which accentuates the intensity of several scenes where anything untoward could happen but mercifully doesn’t. This could have easily turned into the type of film where psychosis runs rampant and the two women are perpetually put into peril. Instead, it’s merely a quiet, simple tale about economic fortitude and maintaining a decent life when it seems that nothing is left. Ray works for one of those dollar type stores and is unable to convince her boss to give her more hours. She is considered a temp despite the fact that she has been working there for two years. The reality she faces is grim and she barely manages to hold off two men sent to repossess her rent-to-own television set if she doesn’t come up with enough money to cover the payment.

T.J. runs a credit card scam with another boy and gives him the numbers in exchange for the Tyco set that Ricky wants for Christmas. He is Ricky’s guardian for much of the time and the bond between the two boys is clearly stated. T.J. is literally the man of the house and the responsibilities that this entails seem to weigh heavily upon his shoulders. He wants to get a job but Ray disagrees and informs him that he is to remain in school. It’s a difficult period in his life and he looks around helplessly, not knowing what to do to help his mother get the double wide. He longs for a life beyond that which he has known but he never exactly reveals the totality of his frustration. He slowly burns and quietly longs for something to emerge that will make life better for his family.

The film builds tension and opens many doors through which the story might go. It’s as open as the frozen river over which Ray’s car breaks through the ice forcing her, Lila, and two female Chinese immigrants to race to the other side. There is a legitimate sense of place in this film that grounds it in an immediacy that is both compelling and poignant. Over the frozen river Ray must travel to achieve her goals and purchase the one sanctuary she imagines will help her get out of the mess that circumstances beyond her control have thrust upon her. The double wide is held up as a symbol of relative prosperity that Ray needs to set things straight.

Despite precautions, Ray and Lila receive the attention of the police who are represented by Trooper Finnerty (O’ Keefe), an affable man whose method is direct and friendly. These exchanges increase the pressure that the film understands must be applied and relieved in a carefully orchestrated balancing act. This film never loses sight of the importance of gravity and maintaining a quietness that is naturalistic and reflects the severity of the ice-laden climate which is brutally cold and unrelenting. The differences between the United States and the Mohawk Nation Indian reservation are profound. There are different laws and a different way of going about business. Lila is denied access to a car by tribal elders because they know what she is up to yet say nothing. Ray is considered by Lila to be immune because she is White. However, the police are also aware of Lila’s activities and question Ray about her association with her.

The film progresses along unexpected lines. Nothing occurs predictably and the result is simply a greatly compelling film that focuses on concerns that afflict so many people in today’s fractured economy. Ray is an earnest believer in working for what she gets until the situation gets so out of hand that she has no choice but to perform illegal acts in order to provide for her family. She is out in no man’s land without an anchor and she jumps at the opportunity to help her self out of the immediate crisis. The film offers no pat explanations, no easy answers in describing her behavior and certainly neither condones nor condemns it. In the end she makes a specific choice and the chips fall where they may.

The performances in this film are all convincing portraits of real people with their own motivations for their behavior. Melissa Leo is sharply tuned throughout the entire film. She creates a wounded character who is immediately likable. She establishes Ray’s feeling of helplessness with a careful and nuanced performance that sheds quite a bit of light on the types of seemingly insignificant damages that build up over time until the situation at hand seems irreversible. Misty Upham brings a quiet elegance to her character and moves with delicate precision throughout the film. She is poised and maintains a calm air that belies the severity of her situation. Michael O’ Keefe is sturdy, compelling, and upstanding as the trooper who investigates Lila and Ray. His presence is solid and demonstrably focused and brings a semblance of clarity to a murky situation.

Overall, this film is a testament to what can be achieved on a limited budget with a stellar script, top-notched actors and a strong sense of place. There are many moments of quiet suffering that wash over the faces of the characters. There is isolation, loneliness, and terrible sadness in these faces but the film insists on moving forward and doesn’t make the mistake of lingering too long. Ultimately this is a film with something to say about motherhood, the threat of loss, and the impermanence that afflicts life at every turn.

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