Frozen River caused quite the stir when it was realised four years back. After lots of festival attention, it earned two Academy Awards nominations. The first was for writer-director Courtney Hunt’s original screenplay, and the second was a best actress nod for Melissa Leo. Finally catching up with this film, as the first in my “SHITTY CHRISTMAS!” series, I’m firstly left bemused as to why the Academy were so impressed with the clunky script, and secondly, angry that Leo’s staggering performance didn’t get the gong it deserved.
Set on the snowbound American side of the New York/Quebec border, Leo plays the fatigued shop assistant Ray, with a ballsy, pugnacious streak. That ruthless attitude proves useful when her gambling addict husband takes off with the money the pair had been saving for a new static caravan home. Leaving crumbs for her and their two kids the week before Christmas, Ray must find a steadfast way to quash the family debt, settle the final payment on the new house, and have enough money to plant gifts underneath the tree.
But luck strikes in the strangest of places. Whilst she’s out wielding a gun and hunting for her husband, Ray bumps into the stoical Lila (Misty Upham), a young woman from a neighbouring Mohawk reservation. She’s desperate for money too, needing enough to start up a clean life with her baby boy son, currently being sheltered by her mother-in-law (similarly to Ray, her husband bailed too). Lila’s figured out how to make extra cash by ferrying illegal immigrants across the border via the connected frozen river – but she needs a ‘trustworthy-looking’ white woman to carry out the scheme.
From the offset, it’s clear that Ray & Lila’s relationship is strictly professional. They argue, point guns, and exchange flippant racial abuse at each other. But they have one thing in common, a desperation to do what’s right for their respective families, and they’re willing to break the law, risk prison and even death to see that happen.
An alleged 14 years in the making, director-writer Courtney Hunt’s debut feature is perhaps a little belaboured. What could have been a very tight, singular character study, ends up being diluted and drowned by the ancillary characters and the extraneous plot depths they bring. Misty Upham seems to be on the brink of solid, stoney-faced characterisation but, like the rest of the cast, she is also upstaged by Leo. It’s a huge problem in this little, $1million budget movie. Whenever Melissa Leo isn’t in the frame, Frozen River is too dour to be entertaining, and everything ends up grinding to a halt.
Fortunately enough, Hunt is aware that Leo really is the star of the movie, giving her the respect, creative license and screen time she deserves to pull off one astonishing breakthrough performance. In any other actor’s hands, it would have been a melodramatic take on a woman on the brink of depression and despair. But, in something closely resembling Debra Granik’s superior movie Winter’s Bone, Leo turns Frozen River into an affecting, frosty depiction of female empowerment.
This film is the first of my ‘SHITTY CHRISTMAS!’ series, a sequence of films I will be watching this December to coincide with the ho-ho-holiday. Rather than spread the yuletide joy, I’ve decided to pick up some extremely dour movies set in and around the festive season. Find more movies here.