The Flick Chicks

Jacqueline Monahan's Movie Reviews

Frozen River

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Frozen River

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Jacqueline Monahan is an English tutor for the GEAR UP program at UNLV.
She is also a consultant for Columbia College Chicago in Adjunct Faculty Affairs
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Flick Chicks Chick-O-Meter The Flick Chicks, film, video, movie reviews, critics, Judy Thorburn, Victoria Alexander, Polly Peluso, Shannon Onstot, Jacqueline Monahan, Tasha ChemplavilFlick Chicks Chick-O-Meter The Flick Chicks, film, video, movie reviews, critics, Judy Thorburn, Victoria Alexander, Polly Peluso, Shannon Onstot, Jacqueline Monahan, Tasha ChemplavilFlick Chicks Chick-O-Meter The Flick Chicks, film, video, movie reviews, critics, Judy Thorburn, Victoria Alexander, Polly Peluso, Shannon Onstot, Jacqueline Monahan, Tasha ChemplavilFlick Chicks Chick-O-Meter The Flick Chicks, film, video, movie reviews, critics, Judy Thorburn, Victoria Alexander, Polly Peluso, Shannon Onstot, Jacqueline Monahan, Tasha ChemplavilFlick Chicks Chick-O-Meter The Flick Chicks, film, video, movie reviews, critics, Judy Thorburn, Victoria Alexander, Polly Peluso, Shannon Onstot, Jacqueline Monahan, Tasha Chemplavil


Even the title hints of a desperate desolation. The titular river is the St. Lawrence and it forms part of the border between the U.S. and Canada. Owned by the Mohawk Nation, who occupies a nearby reservation, U.S. authorities have no jurisdiction in this unpatrolled corridor. Think of the possibilities. A few people already have.

Economically challenged mother and dollar-store employee Ray (Melissa Leo) must come up with a four-thousand dollar payment to guarantee delivery of her dream home, a double wide trailer. In her small, impoverished, Upstate New York town, snow is a constant, almost a character itself, providing a physical obstacle to a comfort that eludes Ray at every turn. Her sons, T.J. (Charlie McDermott) and Ricky (James Reilly) must start each day with a breakfast of popcorn and Tang. Lunch money is scraped together from loose change in the couch cushions. To make matters worse, Ray’s husband has disappeared with the family savings while en route to Atlantic City.

When Ray finds his car outside a local Bingo parlor, she discovers it’s in the possession of a Mohawk woman named Lila (Misty Upham) who dislikes Whites and needs eye correction to see objects at close range. Ray gets the car back in a struggle that entails gunfire, discovering Misty’s covert smuggling operation in the process. Crossing the frozen St. Lawrence River will get you unrestricted access into Canada and back. Soon Ray’s taking part in transporting concealed human cargo – just until she has enough money for her new home.

Lila’s situation is even more dire than Ray’s. Her husband’s dead and her infant son has been literally stolen from her by her mother-in-law. Tribal authorities refuse to get involved. Although she sleeps in a tiny unhitched and unheated trailer on wheels, Lila passes her smuggling payoffs on to her mother-in-law, anonymously she thinks, for her son’s care. She does not immediately get the eyeglasses she needs, putting the baby’s needs ahead of her own. She’s tough and ruthless, often stating her dislike of Ray and Whites in general, but knowing that a white driver is like insurance against random police searches. Ray is useful so she’ll put up with all of it.

The film follows the uneasy relationship between these two women who form an unlikely partnership while smuggling illegal immigrants into the United States. The title will give you a clue of the dangerous route they must take, human cargo in the trunk, white knuckles firmly on the steering wheel, and with only a layer of ice between themselves and the black depths of the St. Lawrence River. The money’s good, and both women (and their children) are fighting a crushing poverty that a big payoff can solve.

After a few successful attempts, events go increasingly awry, causing the two to come to the attention of a State Trooper (Michael O’Keefe), a somewhat sympathetic but no-nonsense reminder of law enforcement and penalties that entail incarceration. The two encounter unsavory traffickers, helpless victims and suspicious “cargo.” Tragedy hovers around every snowy turn, threatening with icy hands. Still, the women persevere until a dilemma makes them evaluate what really matters in each of their lives.

Melissa Leo gives a virtuoso performance as the gritty Ray, hair and makeup be damned - she’s got two kids to take care of. The former star of TV’s “Homicide” conveys a weary, convincing determination despite her character’s bleak circumstances. Misty Upham takes an unappealing character and fills her with intolerance, ambivalence and finally, acceptance. Her onscreen transformation is slow but authentic, an amazing testament to Upham’s quiet skill at her craft.

It is especially gratifying when a female director explores women’s issues and does not resort to glamour, sex appeal or feminine wiles to enhance the plot or manipulate a largely patriarchal society. This is writer/director Courtney Hunt's feature directorial debut, and her insight into her characters is impressive, not allowing them to wallow in self-pity or turn helpless because they have no men to “rescue” them. Hunt’s two leads make hard decisions based on need and both are alone in those decisions. Complex relationships are dissected and put on display no matter how unsettling, and that’s where the revelations begin.

“Frozen River” doesn’t make the mistake of following a worst case scenario route but still takes the viewer precariously to the edge. Hunt does not opt for an easy melodrama, instead constructing a decidedly unsympathetic but honest portrayal of two disparate (and quietly desperate) women. For her effort, the film won the Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic at this year's Sundance Film Festival.

If Hunt is this good in a deep freeze, imagine what she can do at room temperature, or better yet, when heat is applied. I, for one, am eager to find out.