' Cinema Romantico: Frozen River

Monday, February 16, 2009

Frozen River

The feature debut of writer/director Courtney Hunt brings to mind something that might have come out of post-WWII Italy. "Frozen River" feels very immediate for the time, which is to say the despair of a bleak economy hovers directly above the heads of all the main characters of this film.

Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo in her Oscar nominated performance) is an everyday hero, acting out of desperation and determination for her two children. Her ultimate dream is to save enough cash to buy them a doublewide trailer, that and to earn a full time job at the Yankee Dollar retail store where she has been employed for two years. She scrounges around in the couch cushions for change to make sure her kids have lunch money. For dinner she serves popcorn and tang. She refuses to let her oldest son take a job to ensure he remains in school. The Yankee Dollar manager says he sees her more as a part-time employee and so there will be no promotion. It's enough to make you want to scream. But Ray doesn't scream.

As the film opens her husband has up and left with a considerable chunk of cash and one of the family's two beat-up cars. She doesn't find her husband. She doesn't find the cash. But she does find the car, a local Mohawk woman named Lila (Misty Upham) having taken it after it was abandoned by Ray's husband. Lila says she knows someone who will pay good money for it and so the two of them trek across a frozen river into Canada to make the sale. But Ray finds that along with the cash the deal includes two illegal aliens being stuffed into her trunk that she now has to smuggle back across the border.

It's not something that Ray wants to do but she still needs to buy that doublewide. She needs to get at least one present under the Christmas tree for her youngest son. She needs to pay to keep the TV from getting hauled away. (By the way, take special note of the TV's size. In this life where they have absolutely no money for anything and are living in a crummy trailer their television set is huuuuge. Is that perfect or is that perfect? Quintessentially American. That is a brilliant piece of set design, Ms. Hunt, kudos to you.)

Of course, as greek tragedies have taught us, once you start down the primrose path, you ain't gonna' stop. Not until you're made to stop, right? So Ray keeps turning up at Lila's and together the two keep crossing that frozen river to make another run smuggling illegals back into the states and the two form an uneasy, tentative alliance that will dangle over a very precarious precipice in the third act.

I'm not sure how I felt about this development. It did not feel entirely natural to me but that was because the timeline of it all seemed a bit too rushed. I don't think the decisions made would have been made at that point. I felt the friendship wasn't enough of a friendship quite yet. But never mind.

After her first smuggling run Lila bolts with all the cash and Ray unsuccessfully tries to stop her, resulting in a wound to the back of the head that seeps a little blood. Ray struggles back home with only one of her two cars, unable to go to the hospital because she doesn't have the money, and lies down for a nap with thoughts of her husband being long gone with all that cash his family needed so desperately. A little later her youngest son wakes her up. But despite all that has just happened, she doesn't blow her stack. She doesn't yell, doesn't curse, doesn't tell her youngest son to go away. Instead she rolls over, puts on a happy face and cheerfully greets him.

A true heroine indeed.

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