Courtney Hunt’s film Frozen River is a quietly moving examination of lives blinkered by poverty in a small town in upstate New York, close to the Canadian border. As the local economy withers away, residents of the town and those on the nearby Mohawk reservation turn to illegally smuggling immigrants into the country as a way to turn a quick buck.
Melissa Leo plays Ray Eddy, a woman whose husband has run off with the balloon payment due on the double-wide trailer they’ve been saving to buy. The film starts with Ray sitting in the passenger seat of her car, wearing a worn, pink chenille bathrobe. The car is parked outside her rusty single-wide mobile home, which sits precariously, isolated on an abandoned, grassless lot in the middle of the nowhere where the surrounding town is already dying.
The camera moves in for an extreme close-up of Ray’s face, scrutinizing every pore and inch of her rough red skin, worn from smoke and worry. Unexpected tears suddenly spill out of her eyes, while she blows smoke from her mouth.Her tears flow without a drop of self-pity; they release something that lets her pull herself together and go back into the house to attend to her two sons. T.J., the teenaged boy (Charlie McDermott), watches over his five-year-old brother; he can’t bear to see him suffer the disappointments T.J. already knows are in store. The younger boy lives happily ignorant of their poverty, as both Ray and T.J. struggle to keep his world intact.
At the film’s start, Ray’s husband has just left, and not for the first time. While the boys are in school, she goes to look for him at the Bingo parlor on the nearby Mohawk reservation, where wary locals refuse to help her. In the parking lot, Ray sees Lila, a young Native woman, driving her husband’s car.When Ray confronts her, Lila says she found it with the keys in it at the bus station, and later mentions she saw the car’s owner getting on a southbound bus. Ray knows her husband is headed to Atlantic City; she also knows the money is irretrievably gone.
Ray’s initial interactions with Lila play out in icy recriminations, as neither woman has much sympathy for the other. Their equally desperate straits make them natural competitors, but they’re both smart enough to realize they’d be better off as collaborators. The car holds value for Lila, because she needs a vehicle to participate in a smuggling ring that shepherds illegal immigrants across the St. Lawrence River, frozen solid in the bitter winter. Once they see that they can help one another, they strike up a situational relationship of convenience. How it changes propels the film into surprising emotional territory.
Lila is implacably calm about the smuggling operation into which she initiates Ray. Lila knows everything: how much it costs to be smuggled into the States; how long the immigrants have to work until they pay off their debt to the people who bring them in; how much time you have to serve if you get caught running an illegal; and how much they make for each smuggling run. But Lila needs a car and she also needs someone who can see. Her ill-fitted glasses are too uncomfortable to wear. But she worries that the smugglers will cheat her, and makes sure that Ray counts their money at the beginning and end of every trip.
Lila lives in circumstances even more humble than Ray’s; her trailer is a one-room camper, abandoned in deep, snow covered woods. An unexplained crime has destroyed Lila’s reputation on the reservation. Something happened that resulted in her young husband’s death, which prompts the tribal council to collude with Lila’s mother-in-law to take away Lila’s one-year-old child. Lila watches the baby, hiding in the bushes outside her mother-in-law’s house, leaving money for them in potato chip canisters she quietly props by their door.
Because Ray has the car and Lila has the knowledge, the two women make a business deal. They drive together across the frozen river to still another ramshackle mobile home, rolling across the ice to where the smuggler keeps illegal immigrants waiting to be ferried into the U.S. Ray and Lila load two of these people into their trunk at a time and drive back on the ice to the unwatched border. When they get off the river, they drive through a portion of the route watched by a state trooper. The tensest moment of the trip is when they look to see if he follows. Lila tells Ray bitterly on their first trip, “He won’t stop you, you’re white.”
Throughout the film, Ray forces herself into situations in which she’s singular—the only white woman, the only working mother, the only woman who’s not a stripper or an alien in the Canadian club they visit in the film’s climactic scene to collect their last load of illegal immigrants. She handles herself with incredible resolve and aplomb, once she decides to participate. She and Lila clear $600 for each trip they make; the money is generous and easy for someone who works long hours, standing on her feet for a minimum wage that amounts to much less.
Unsavory men run the smuggling operation. One is a hirsute, brutal Canadian who owns the strip club; the other is the long-haired Native man in the trailer on the river, who takes one look into Ray’s car and tells Lila, “I don’t like to deal with white women.” But Ray needs the money and can’t afford to bristle at the racism she suffers. After all, Ray is racist, too.
Hunt’s film carefully calibrates the dual oppressions of being poor and white or Native American in a country in which there are fewer and fewer social service nets. Without her husband, Ray needs to earn twice as much. But she works as a clerk at the local Dollar Value store, where her manager is an unctuous much younger white man who refuses to put her on the schedule fulltime after she’s worked dependably for two years. But he lets another, younger, prettier female employee come in late and keep much more lax work habits. Ageism also works against Ray and her struggle to feed her kids.
T.J. complains about eating popcorn and drinking Tang for breakfast and dinner. Ray searches for coins in the couch pillows, meting out the few quarters and dimes she can scrape together so that the boys can buy themselves lunches at school. T.J. wants to leave high school and get a job, but Ray insists he continue his education. She’s steely in her resolve that he’ll do better, that he’ll somehow transcend the circumstances in which she’s raising him.
Ray hasn’t yet acquiesced to her situation. Every act is motivated by her dream of buying the double-wide trailer with three bedrooms, a Jacuzzi in the master, and wall-to-wall carpeting. At the film’s start, the new house is being delivered on a flatbed truck that pulls right up to the field where the old one sits, desolate. But since her husband has absconded with the cash, Ray doesn’t have the final payment. The angry trailer salesman drives the truck off, telling her he won’t come out again.
Ray wants that home. The film respects that the double-wide is the apogee of the better life toward which she can stride. Frozen River isn’t a fairy tale. But its clear-eyed understanding of Ray and Lila’s plight insures that we don’t pity either character. Their part of upstate New York is forsaken and barren, but it has a brutal, chilled beauty that makes the landscape look like a Catherine Opie painting of strangely symmetrical, subtly colorful ice-fishing huts on a frozen lake.
Ray isn’t asking for hand-outs; she isn’t even really blaming her husband. She understands he’s sick: “He has an addiction,” she tells her son with clenched teeth. They settle in at the end of their evenings to have important conversations as they look beyond one another, staring at the television while they talk about how they’re going to get through the next day.
The son substitutes for his father, even though he, too, is still a child. T.J. makes crank calls to swindle unsuspecting elderly people out of $29 and their credit card numbers, telling them they’ve been left an inheritance for which he needs their information to process the small fee before he releases their windfalls. His own anxious ploy for cash preys on the desperation of the people he reaches, extending the cycle of poverty and despair and determination to survive by your wits.
T.J. isn’t scamming for drug money or alcohol, or anything about which a young boy with slightly more means might scheme. He’s trying to pitch in, since Ray won’t let him pull his weight and work for the few dollars of extra cash that might mean real food on their plates. Ray has rented a flat-screen television from a place called “Rent to Buy.” When the store calls to say if she doesn’t make her payment, they’re coming to take it away, T.J. frantically plots to find the money, so that his little brother won’t be left without his meager entertainment. These quotidian crises propel this drama, and yet they generate surprisingly ominous suspense.
Hunt produces a narrative that could be told much more conventionally. For instance, when a state trooper comes to their trailer at the film’s end, looking for T.J., a different sort of film-maker could succumb to cliché and have him haul the boy to jail. In Frozen River, the officer brings along the elderly woman T.J. swindled, asking only that the boy apologize face to face for what he did and that he not do it again. The law here isn’t the enemy—the troopers (including Michael O’Keefe, nicely underplaying as the officer whose interactions with Ray over the course of the story determine her fate) find themselves employed among people whose actions are motivated by the extremity of their poverty, not by evil.
Likewise, Ray’s future comes as no surprise, but how it’s handled is humane and forgiving. For someone managing such a hard-scrabble life, she finds reserves of compassion and understanding that model a hopeful extension of conventional kinship systems across race, ethnicity, and class. On the other hand, Ray isn’t portrayed a saint. She deflects any empathy she might receive from the other characters as well as from spectators. On one of their smuggling trips, Ray carries a Pakistani couple in her trunk, a man and a woman who have a duffle bag they insist Ray and Lila carry inside the car. Ray doesn’t know what “Paki” means when Lila refers to their passengers, or where Pakistan is when Lila explains.
The mysterious package makes Ray uneasy, and she decides to leave it on the icy river halfway through the trip. When they arrive at the roadside motel where the illegal immigrants are passed along to the next operative in the seedy smuggling ring, delivered into a life of servitude working for the people who bring them over, the Pakistani couple is distraught about the abandoned bag.For good reasons, Ray and Lila return to the river in the glacial cold of a very dark night to retrieve it.
Ray makes mistakes; she’s not worldly; she’s racist; she has a gun and she’s more than willing to use it. But her innate intelligence and her sharp survival skills make her a compelling, moving study in economic determination. Leo’s performance—for which she received a richly deserved Academy Award nomination—is unsparing and vulnerable. She brings a transparency to her performance that lets you see Ray deliberately make each of her impossible decisions, and track her commitment to seeing them through.
Leo registers the injustices she confronts with bitter knowledge, but never with self-pity. There’s no wallowing in her performance as Ray, just a deep willingness to bring this woman dignity and finally, understanding. Each of the central performances is equally unsparing and natural. Misty Upham, as Lila, has the same blank affect as Elaine Miles, the Native American woman who played Marilyn on the television series Northern Exposure in the early 1990s.Lila is perhaps a bit of a stereotype, as the unemotional, inexpressive Native American who nonetheless observes and comments dryly but perceptively.
But the character’s back-story and her uneasy relationship to the Mohawk territory where she clearly lives as an outsider lets Lila exceed stock. Her determination to retrieve the baby that was stolen from her fuels her own trips back and forth across the border. One of her most painful scenes shows her holed up in her tiny, snow encrusted camper, startled awake when the container in which she’s been leaving money for her mother-in-law and her baby is thrown against her thin tin door with all her money still rolled up inside.
Frozen River details the kind of desperation that drives good people to do bad things. The movie is as suspenseful as a James Bond film, but the drama here is all about the struggle to survive and the most human of emotions. When a connection is finally made, no one lives happily every after, but they do manage to pool their wits and their wiles enough to survive. For these two disenfranchised women and three young boys, that’s admirable enough.
The Feminist Spectator