, 97 min, 2008
Director: Courtney Hunt
Writer: Courtney Hunt
Stars: Melissa Leo, Misty Upham, Charlie McDermott
Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River is a slice of life with thriller elements that is as harrowing, involving and believable as they come. It centers on two remarkable performances, neither one of which would exist without the other.
Melissa Leo stars as Ray Eddy, a working mother living in upstate New York on the border of a Mohawk Indian reservation. Ray works at the local dollar store, does the best she can to feed her kids till pay-day (popcorn and Tang is a common refrain for breakfast and dinner), and must bare the burden of a gambling-addicted husband.
When we first meet Ray, a week or so before Christmas, her husband Troy has just ran off with the money she’d been saving to put toward purchasing a new double-wide trailer as a home, and she is frantic as they are about to lose their $1500 deposit on the trailer. Ray’s oldest son T.J. wants to get a job to help out, but he’s 15 and is “going to school” as Ray continually reminds him.
One fateful day, meanwhile, Ray’s path crosses that of a Mohawk Indian woman named Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham) who has her own problems: she has bad eyesight, is barely keeping her job as a checker at the Bingo Palace, her mother “kidnapped” her one-year-old child from her and won’t let her see him, and she makes a modicum of side-income smuggling illegal immigrants across the St. Lawrence River into Canada. It is this illegal business venture which Lila ropes Ray into, turning two desperate women into small-time criminals looking to carve out their own piece of the so-called American Dream.
Courtney Hunt, who wrote and directed, has crafted a beautiful, gritty, intense and astonishingly assured debut; she is one to watch. The film, shot in gritty but beautiful hand-held HD by Reed Morano, sheds light on lives and a bleak, desolate landscape often ignored.
Melissa Leo is a name (and perhaps a face) that will be unfamiliar to most of you, unless you happened to watch TV’sHomicide: Life on the Street from 1993 to 1997. She has appeared in a number of films, especially in recent years, taking strong memorable supporting work in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s 21 Grams (2003) and, more recently, Tommy Lee Jones’ The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005); both were written by Guillermo Arriaga.
In Ray Eddy, Melissa Leo creates an indelible portrait of desperate, poor living at the ends of the earth, making her heartbreakingly believable and utterly empathetic from the first shot to the last. Misty Upham manages to find a kindred spirit in Lila; both of these women are so desperate in their own ways, they manage to compliment and contrast with each other. This is one of the year’s very best films.
Note: Nominated for 2 Oscars for Best Actress (Leo) and Original Screenplay. Leo deservedly won the Independent Spirit Award for Best Lead Actress, and the film won the Producers Award.