Friday, September 5, 2008
written and directed by Courtney Hunt
starring Melissa Leo, Misty Upham and Michael O'Keefe
I left the screening of Frozen River asking myself if this film is too bleak. Maybe not, when one considers the weight of the subject matter. A poor single mother in upstate New York trying to keep herself and her two sons afloat, who turns to illegal immigrant smuggling in her desperation. Heavy. Truth be told, bleakness itself never ruined a film, at least not for me. Can anyone seriously argue against the incredibly bleak nature of The Sweet Hereafter (one of my favorite films) that (like Frozen River) sails over the Northern, snow-capped terrain exposing its desolation and hopelessness? Newcomer Courtney Hunt has created a downbeat human drama indeed.
Leo plays Ray, a woman living in a trailer with her two sons, aged fifteen and five. She can barely scrape together money for rent. Her husband is AWOL and has a serious gambling addiction that has afforded her family many opportunities for financial ruin. Her oldest son desperately wants to quit school so he can get a job and help the family. Ray lives day by day on the hope that she'll be made Assistant Manager at the dollar store she's been working at for the past two years and finally be able to afford a double-wide (did I mention bleak?) Ray is roped into the whole immigration smuggling racket quite by accident when she tracks down a Mohawk woman named Lila (a believable and natural Misty Upham), who happened upon Ray's car once her husband abandoned it. The two form a reluctant partnership as Lila shows Ray how simply having a car with a pop-open trunk can make her a lot of money.
The performances here are quite good. The actors steer very well around the big emotional turns. Melissa Leo reduces Ray to a sheer force of will to survive, never allowing herself to get too caught up or rundown by her emotional baggage (which is surely legion). Ray's been hurt before, and she'll be hurt again and she knows this. And so does Leo. As Lila, Misty Upham plays her cards very close to her chest. She is dishonest, but it is a desperate frantic dishonesty, not one of cold calculation. Upham plays Lila so that we always catch her in her lies. Consider a scene in which Lila is attempting to by a car with money she has saved. The dealer knows what she is up to and refuses to sell her a trunk. Watch Upham's eyes as Lila scrambles for excuse after excuse as to why she needs that car. Though they meet under contentious circumstances, perhaps the reason that Lila and Ray continue to be drawn to each other is not entirely about the large amounts of money they can make, but about a shared experience of desperation and attempt to regain some semblance of peace. Though it is ultimately about the money, and the film, in one of its few pieces of purely thought out characterization, never seeks to sentimentalize their bond or "Thelma and Louise" the two women. They speak little about personal matters when they're in the car together. In fact, an attempt by Lila to delve into the details of Ray's marital woes is met with a stern and stone-faced "fuck you."
Courtney Hunt's direction here is standard, logical, and ultimately impressive (and not just for a debut). Even more impressive is Reed Morano's cinematography, which captures the barren landscape of the American North without exploiting the obvious opportunities for wide shots of nothingness.
Ultimately, the aforementioned weaknesses are mainly content-based. The film ultimately says very little about the issue of immigrant smuggling, or the complexities of Native American/white American relations. One could make the argument that Hunt is attempting a more personal stories, free of easily digestible soapbox messages and platitudes. That's all well and good. The only problem with that is that in all of her attempts to humanize and engender sympathy for her characters (especially Ray), these characters do often feel archetypal (once again, especially Ray). The single-mother trying to make ends meet. Not to take anything away from Melissa Leo's performance, but because it's a character that's been explored countless times in cinema, it makes the film's ending lack the emotional one-two punch that Hunt is aiming for. I ultimately expected what I saw. This was still an intriguing debut from Hunt and I'm curious to see more. That being said, Frozen River suffers from a serious lack of focus, especially in its third act. The film is at least partially saved by Melissa Leo's smoldering star turn, which may well earn her an Oscar nomination for best actress if Sony Pictures Classic campaigns properly. But being fond of Leo's performance does not automatically install blinders on my face that make me oblivious to the film's other problems.