Frozen River

Desperation is not a place, but a long journey. So often we look at those in worse situations than us and say “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” when unlike us they weren’t born into a pair of nice boots and no one ever taught them how to tie their shoes, much less balance a checkbook. In Frozen River, we meet Ray Eddie (Melissa Leo, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada) on a very bad day. Her husband is gone, probably off to a casino; her kids are hungry, and their new house (a double-wide, naturally) can’t be delivered because hubby ran off with the cash. The bootstraps have long since been worn to shreds.
But she tries anyway. We see her waking up to begin her day with her sons- the young Ricky and the older T.J.- and the opening shot is on her weathered face, and her tattooed, lean body as he pulls on a sweater. The lines on her face show the hard road she’s been on, and it’s impossible to tell her age, but I’d lean to the younger side. She’s had it rough, living in upstate New York near the Canadian border, next to the Mohawk Reservation. She works retail, and they live in a beat-up single-wide trailer, with nothing but “popcorn and Tang” to eat. But they have a big TV, so you get an idea of her missing husband’s priorities.

She goes looking for him at the casino on the Res, where she finds his abandoned car- while she’s there, a Mohawk woman hops in his car and takes off. She follows her to her even more meager home- a tiny trailer in the woods, and bangs on her door. When she won’t come out, Ray takes out a purse gun and shoots a hole in her trailer. She’s got issues of her own. She gets her keys back, but can’t take two cars back… long story short, she needs the woman inside’s help. Lila (Misty Upham) is in the midst of her own personal tragedy, and wanted the car to make money smuggling illegals across the frozen river from Canada to the States, all on Mohawk territory where it’s tough for the cops to intervene. And when Ray sees how easily she can solve her monetary woes, they strike a wary partnership.
Lila teaches Ray about the business- they shuttle Chinese illegals, who pay snakeheads to smuggle them in. The debt is upwards of forty thousand, and they work years to pay it off. “They pay forty thousand dollars? To come here?” What’s unspoken is that while Ray and Lila are struggling, others have it so bad they’d enslave themselves to have a chance at their shitty situation. Ray just wants enough cash to get the doublewide, which Ricky asked Santa Claus for. At home, T.J. does his best to raise his brother, but has a disturbing habit of playing with the blowtorch his Dad gave him, and we keep waiting for Ray to come home to cinders and corpses.

Courtney Hunt’s film doesn’t give us predictable outcomes. Lila has bad eyes and can’t afford glasses; her money gets dropped off anonymously to her sister-in-law, who takes care of Lila’s year-old son. Her husband died in a smuggling run when he broke through the ice; we keep waiting to see it happen again. Like Hitchcock, she knows that the ticking bomb under the table is much more effective than the explosion. We see the shady edges of society that fuel the smuggling operation- a strip club run by the ever-slimy Mark Boone Junior (Batman Begins, 30 Days of Night).
Ray and Lila shuttle a Pakistani couple over the ice, and they have a duffel bag that Ray is suspicious of. She tosses it on the ice, not wanting to be responsible if they’re terrorists, but that sets a whole sequence of events in motion, and it doesn’t end like you expect. The one predictable occurrence is that Ray wants to do one last run to pay off the trailer, and pushes her luck. But once again, the story doesn’t end where you expect. There is a strong emotional payoff, tempered by the bond between the two struggling women.

As excellent as Melissa Leo’s Oscar-nominated performance is, the script is even better. It is also nominated, and up against Milk, WALL-E, In Bruges, and Happy-Go-Lucky it has some stiff competition. It’s a worthy opponent in its own right, and while I’d love to see Bruges or Lucky get a nod, I can’t see the Academy ignoring two excellent movies that touch on illegal immigration- this and The Visitor– this year. Frozen River and Visitor, with more money and big names, would be sitting where Frost/Nixon and The Reader are in the Best Picture category. In my mind they’re more deserving.

5 dead snakeheads out of 5