Thursday, July 16, 2009

FROZEN RIVER (now playing at home where your freeloading uncle Louie passed out and barfed in your favorite chair)

First time director Courtney Hunt has chosen the stark setting of the Mohawk reservation bordering Canada in upstate New York for Frozen River, a tale that she penned about two women living on the edge who are driven to desperate measures to survive.

Ray (Melissa Leo) is a middle-aged mom trying to raise two kids on her own. At first glance it appears that she's a victim of circumstance--her loser husband has cleared out, and her low paying job isn't bringing in enough scratch to keep up with the bills. But look a little closer and you'll see that most of her troubles are of her own doing, and her own doing is going to be her undoing.

She's trying to upgrade her single-wide trailer to a new double-wide, but can't come up with the balloon payment to get the thing delivered. Meanwhile, she's serving popcorn and Tang to her kids every night for dinner. And why? Because she just shelled out the rest of her cash to hang onto a giant screen TV from the rent-to-own place. In other words, her priorities are out of whack. (If she'd even held onto the money she's been spending on cigarettes, she'd at least been able to upgrade her meals to macaroni and cheese!)

When Ray meets Lila Littlewolf, (Misty Upham) a member of the reservation who's involved in smuggling undocumented aliens (mostly Chinese) across the border into the U.S., the temptation of quick and easy money sucks her in. The two women settle into an uneasy alliance--Lila has the connections, and Ray provides the wheels as the illegals are stuffed into the trunk of her car and ferried across a remote, frozen section of the St. Lawrence river.

Ray is understandably nervous about what she's doing, and intends to get out as soon as she's made enough to get that new double-wide. But things get complicated. With a young Pakistani couple in her trunk, Ray gets spooked and says to her partner, "Let's hope they're not the ones that blow themselves and everyone else up!" She then proceeds to jettison the couple's backpack--for fear of what it might contain--leaving it out in the cold and snow somewhere along their route. But OOPS...the couple's BABY was inside that backpack, and Ray and Lila are sent scrambling back to try to recover it before it's too late.

I don't know if director Courtney Hunt intended for us to feel sympathetic toward Ray as a hapless victim of circumstance, but to me she comes off as callous, ignorant, and a neglectful mother. But even someone like that might opt to do the noble thing in the end.

Leo was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress for her performance in Frozen River. In stark contrast, Misty Upham--a relatively inexperienced actress--probably did the best she could, but was unable to bring any depth to her character. I find it distracting when there's one person in a major role who's constantly drawing attention to herself for the wrong reasons.

There's a kind of beauty in the bleak landscape of Frozen River that a longtime desert dweller such as myself can be seduced by--seeing it on film--but would get my fill of in about two hours if I were actually there. And that's why we go to the be transported to someplace new and intriguing without--in this case--having to actually don the parka and the mukluks.