On the verge of finally getting her dream home, Ray (Leo) wakes up one morning to discover that her gambling addicted husband has left her and their two sons without the cash needed to pay for it. A chance meeting with a local Mohawk girl called Lila (Upham) leads Ray into the world of illegal but lucrative business of human smuggling across the frozen river St Lawrence from Canada.
One of the difficulties of marketing a film is that it has to be categorised and Frozen River is being touted as a thriller. In fact, calling this a thriller almost does it a disservice because it’s not a thriller in the traditional sense and yet at the same time it’s so much more than that. This is really a family drama about love and doing the wrong thing for the right reasons, that just happens to be suspenseful. And it’s the sort of suspense that creeps up on you, growing slowly as the story heads inexorably towards its denouement. The mood of the film, one of hopelessness, poverty and quiet desperation suggests that the ending won’t be a happy one but it’s never clear exactly what the outcome will be, which gives it a gritty realism and maintains the intrigue throughout.
Melissa Leo was nominated for an Oscar for her role as the world weary Ray and quite rightly. She absolutely nails the frustration and pity of an abandoned wife on a minimum wage in small town America and for all her obvious faults it’s impossible not to empathise with her. Misty Upham provides excellent support as the equally morally ambiguous Lila Littlewolf who has her own personal problems on top of being an outsider in the community. As she repeatedly tells Ray of the state troopers, “They won’t stop you, you’re white.” However, while this might come across as a form of racism or barbed social comment at the very least, the position of the Mohawks in the community is handled perfectly and they come across as neither victims nor aggressors of the society, simply a part of it, like everyone else.
Set as it is in the very north of New York State in the heart of winter, the weather is an integral part of the story, almost a character in itself. Director Courtney Hunt captures the atmosphere expertly, with the crunching of the snow underfoot, and the creaking of the frozen river becoming more and more important as the film progresses, for a multitude of reasons. In the end though it’s the beautifully-drawn characters and fascinating plot which makes this well worth a visit to the cinema, albeit slightly incongruous in this sizzling summer weather*.
* Weather assessment correct at time of writing.