Friday, January 16, 2009

Treading On Thin Ice

Frozen River
Directed by Courtney Hunt
Starring: Melissa Leo, Misty Upham, Michael O'Keefe, Charlie McDermott
Grade: C+

As well as being a picturesque and predictably frosty setting for Courtney Hunt's debut project Frozen River is also its title, presumably chosen for its simplicity and metaphoric value (fragility, danger, an ever-changing state). It isn't a far-reaching metaphor, since Melissa Leo's Ray Eddy teeters tentatively on the brink of both poverty and crime before plunging herself fearlessly into the latter. As a working-class American mother-of-two living near the border between New York and Quebec, Ray is dirt-poor and thoroughly miserable, the film opening with a shot of her tear-streaked face despairing over just where the money to pay the next bill is gonna come from. Melissa Leo (I'll get this out of the way) is very good, fulfilling most of what's asked of her muddled character valiantly, effective even in the vast amount of close-ups she's subjected to and amidst serious character inconsistencies.

Ray is drawn into criminal activity through Lila (Misty Upham), a Mohawk woman in need of a car to ferry immigrants from Canada to the U.S. Their relationship, as it turns out, becomes the vessel for the film's insightful knowledge of working-class social and racial attitude (as well as Ray's character arc) which is undoubtedly the most valuable part of Frozen River. Their initial encounters lack trust and are packed with racial tension (mostly stemming from Ray herself) and the awkward silences between them are often filled with the two women nervous, unsure, introspectively judging each other. They are linked at first by a flimsy desire to do the "best" for their kids (Lila has a baby boy she does not have access to), but as the women become first partners, and finally friends, it's clear that their predicaments are inextricably tied.

Frozen River is so effective in its early stages because of Hunt's accurate awareness of this kind of life and its enveloping stranglehold, leading to the re-percussions of crime and punishment. Ray isn't necessarily stupid, as she very well could have been written, but nor does she show any real wisdom or demonstration of what her life has taught her so far. Like many people with her troubles she lives in a dolorous world, and as such is ignorant and quite incapable of stepping back and realising why things aren't getting any better. Her long-term goal is to get a house in a very tacky-looking estate resembling something you'd see an advert for on daytime TV, and she's evidently still paying off an exgravagant widescreen television she doesn't really need -- especially when she can't even afford to feed her children properly. This woman's approach towards family and money feels incredibly honest, and as such the poverty-stricken setting doesn't seem the cliche it often can be in films of this nature.

It's all predominantly about the shaping of Ray's character and is thankfully without much revelation and self-reflection, despite the use of a dramatic plot device which threatens to do so and altogether cheapens Frozen River substantially. I won't go into too much detail, but it's a biblical "Is the baby dead?" revelation we saw similarly, and fairly recently, in last year's Eastern Promises. As well as being a pretty lame way of chronicling Ray's disregard for immigrants or the reason why they want to emigrate in the first place, it's also redundant, in that it bizarrely gets ignored for the rest of the film, or at least doesn't effect anything Ray does after that. It could be intentional; as in her character is so immersed in her own circumstance that even such a mammoth blatantly symbolic event cannot deter her from being a criminal for one last night, but even so, why bother in the first place?

Hunt does a great job of balancing the selfishness and selflessness of Ray for long periods of this film but finally loses it in a quite ridiculous finale that appears to want to establish her as a traditional heroine despite going to great lengths to distance her from 'familiar repressed woman bites back' sensationalism, à la Charlize Theron in North Country. It's brave resting your entire film on one person, but Frozen River is finally shown up for being selfish in its portrayal of a woman that admirably never once purports to be a Florence Nightingale or Joan of Arc but regrettably becomes one anyway.

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