Courtney Hunt's Frozen River starts with an tilted long shot of a frozen river, starting with ambiguous shapes and colors then coming up to show a small town along the horizon of blue, white, and gray. Next we are shown a penetrating close up of Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo), weathered and tired, as she takes a drag of her cigarette - her fingernails dirty, the lines in her face fully visible and without makeup. Immediately you notice two things: the beauty of the images and their cold, harsh realism. Those characteristics last through the next hour and thirty-seven minutes as the intense drama unfolds, twists, and crashes.
Ray Eddy, a mother of two sons, lives in a tin trailer and barely making it with her part-time work at the local dollar store. Her husband has left the family a few days before Christmas to feed a gambling addiction, only this time it is not clear whether he will come back. The money he takes was supposed to pay for a down payment on a larger trailer, but now Ray cannot afford to keep her rented television or even her buy her son Christmas presents. The premise right off the bat sounds like a weepy, sentimentalist Christmas drama, but the low-budget film digs way deeper. Its below-freezing setting and situation drains the warmth of the holidays and we are only reminded of Christmas in the cheap decorations adorning the cupboards of their trailer or the empty Christmas tree in the living room/doorway/kitchen.
As the story progresses we are introduced to Lila, a Mohawk Native American, who smuggles illegal immigrants over the Canadian border for cash. Her character is big, dominating, and puts up a front which we eventually see is only hiding her pain in being alone, prejudiced against, without her son, and far-sighted. After eventually pointing the same pistol at each other and making threats, they become partners in the human trafficking, each desperate for money.
When the pistol is introduced the film starts to become a sort of neo-noir-like thriller, dealing with similar themes of life in the underground crime, desperation, and isolation from both society and individuals. The frozen river that crosses the border over which Ray has to drive becomes a dark and deadly alleyway where the ambiguous morality of crime and necessity mix. Instead of the typically shadowy black and white urban streets, however, we have the white snow and gray slush, the black cold and frozen ice. Even though the narrow streets are replaced by wide open spaces, the extremity of Ray's situation is claustrophically intense, sometimes making it difficult to breathe. The low-budget qualities of the film - the DV camera mostly - add a realism to the film that at times resembles home movie footage and adds a believability to the film that only makes it more effective. Melissa Leo's acting was also fantastic. Where the heck did she come from?
It was very exciting to me to see such a powerful film from a new director and on such a low budget. It refreshes me to see where film can go and how individual visions can offer something new, something a little different. The film is heart-wrenching and at times reaches a grimness that is almost unbearable, but Hunt, and, consequently, we, manage to keep a gleam of hope without abandoning realism or consequence. I am excited to see what this writer/director does next.