By Matt Connolly
Dir. Courtney Hunt, United States, Sony Pictures Classics
The state of Melissa Leo’s complexion has become something of a leitmotif within the press coverage and critical reception of Frozen River. Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly opens his praise-filled review by noting that Leo has “one of those faces that's all creases and hollows and weather-roughened valleys.” The New York Times’ Karen Durbin conjures Medusa when assessing Leo’s character’s “gullied face framed by terrible hair… with bangs that coil wormlike across her forehead.” But respect, not horror, seems the appropriate reaction; Durbin considers “the weird pleasure of seeing how bad Ms. Leo is willing to look for the camera,” while Variety’s Robert Koehler admiringly writes of Leo being “unafraid to show herself weathered by the cold, harsh elements.” There’s nothing inherently inaccurate about these statements. With pronounced lines framing thin, pursed lips and eyes that sit between angular brows and prominent bags, Leo indeed falls just outside the norms of mainstream Hollywood beauty; though from certain angles, she could be Susan Sarandon’s earthy younger sister. And while equating purportedly diminished physical attributes with actorly skill and artistic bravery has always seemed a dubious proposition, writer-director Courtney Hunt has unquestionably done little to gussy Leo up for the camera. The actress’s unadorned countenance remains at the mercy of the not particularly glamorizing, grainy DV camera.
Yet something feels off between the media reaction to Leo’s on-screen appearance and the film’s treatment of her character. Critics and journalists reaffirm conventional standards of prettiness by so vividly illustrating Leo’s evident nonconformity with them, and then condescendingly congratulate her for not noticeably beautifying herself for the camera. The strength of Frozen River lies in its unblinking acceptance of the weight its protagonist’s hardscrabble, hand-to-mouth existence silently exerts upon her. The gaze of Hunt’s camera may be unvarnished, but it’s not unforgiving. From the first time Leo appears on-screen, in extreme and extended close-up, her aura of demoralized, tear-streaked exhaustion is respected as an indisputable fact, not to be patronized or dismissed. Here she is, world: take it or leave it.
Despite some narrative ungainliness, Frozen River is worth taking. Set in Massena, New York, a poverty-stricken township on the U.S.–Canada border, Hunt’s feature debut (expanded from a short film) follows the travails of Ray Eddy (Leo), a lower-class mother of two whose gambling-addict husband has just high-tailed it to Atlantic City with the family’s savings. An already thin budget must be further stretched to accommodate both everyday expenses and the down payments on the new, larger trailer Ray dreams of buying (“the double-wide,” she says affectionately). On an ultimately fruitless search for her husband, Ray finds his car being driven by Lila (Misty Upham), a stout, unsmiling woman from the nearby Mohawk reservation who claims to have found the vehicle abandoned along the side of the road. Lila proposes a partnership: Ray helps her smuggle illegal immigrants across the border (the car’s button-release trunk allows Lila to double-check the wads of cash she receives for the service before releasing the smuggled passengers hidden in the back), and she’ll give Ray half her take. As they drive back and forth over the titular body of water to retrieve their extralegal cargo, an uneasy partnership forms between the two women who, despite mutual, racially based suspicions, find sparse patches of common ground in their shared economic anxieties and fierce maternal instincts (Lila’s one-year-old son was taken at birth by her in-laws, who disapprove of her shifty source of income).
Characters that cling, with ever-whitening knuckles, to the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder are nothing new within the realm of American independent cinema, yet Hunt’s triumph here lies in her presentation of the American underclass milieu as a viable cinematic universe without succumbing to pious fetishization or thinly veiled distaste. I admit to initially cringing when Ray defends, with wavering confidence, her “good job at the Yankee One Dollar,” or her elder son’s complaint that the kitchen cupboards contain nothing but “popcorn and Tang.” Yet compared to, say, The Good Girl (Miguel Arteta’s smug tale of infidelity amongst the Wal-Mart set), Frozen River treats the slights and small miracles of Ray’s daily struggle as dramatically valuable in and of themselves, without placing them under irony’s pitiless magnifying glass or refracting them through the gauzy prism of sentiment. There’s tangible danger present within this film; and I’m not just talking about the smuggling scenes, full as they are of precarious drives over ever-thinning ice and faulty break lights that attract ill-timed police attention. My stomach tightened every time Ray frantically scrounged through her change purse for her sons’ lunch money, or when a minor fire in the trailer threatens to leave the family stranded and homeless. They live on the precipice, overlooking a yawning and shadowy cavern of privation.
This sounds grim, and it is. But Ray and her sons are more than artfully embalmed casualties in the War on Poverty. They’re a family, with all of the tangled dynamics of affection, guilt, suspicion, and understanding that course through the bonds of blood. Ray’s eldest, fifteen-year-old T.J. (Charlie McDermott), is old enough to know their family is in trouble, and combats his own powerlessness by passive aggressively pestering his mother and helping a shady local man scam old ladies into giving out their credit card numbers over the phone. Yet he intuitively appreciates Ray’s desire to shield them from the creeping specter of destitution, tenderly watching after his younger brother Ricky (James Reilly) while she works long hours at the dollar store and, later, unbeknownst to her children, in the smuggling operation. Garishly colored cartoons often blare from the large-screen TV in the family’s trailer, and the image’s poignancy derives from its delicately maintained double lie: not only does the animated content on-screen distract Ricky from the effects of family’s escalating financial woes, but the sheer size and solidity of the television itself is betrayed by its status as a rental. The primary source of escape from harsh reality is itself contingent upon that reality’s constant and impersonal monetary demands. Constructing this veneer of normalcy is Ray and T.J.’s way of expressing love for Ricky and, in a way, for one another. While Hunt films much of Massena as a sparse, frigid tundra of trailer parks and bingo halls, with leafless tress placidly swaying over lonely rural highway, the Eddys’ trailer feels cramped and messy but also intimate, a shelter from the storm. Its fallibility as a protective structure makes Ray’s dream of the “double-wide” all the more urgent and relatable.
In keeping with the film’s nonjudgmental tone, Hunt takes no overt moral stance in relation to Ray and Lila’s human smuggling, nor does it explicitly cast the immigrants themselves as either interlopers or victims. Still, there’s an oddly bifurcated quality to Frozen River: the Ray-Lila smuggling sequences drift the film away from the clear-eyed observations that mark Ray’s domestic life to some distractingly banal plot machinations that simply ratchet up the suspense quotient. It’s an off-putting choice, given the aforementioned tensions that effectively arise from the characters’ perennial struggles against impoverishment. In effect, Hunt devalues her more subtle, naturalistic impulses by overlaying them with blatant emotional button-pushing. This is never more apparent than when Ray begins to suspect that a Pakistani couple she and Lila are transporting may be stashing chemical weapons in their luggage. Xenophobic fears get the better of her, and Ray dumps their bags on the river’s icy surface, only to discover they carried far more precious (and innocent) cargo than she could have imagined. Besides doing a disservice to Ray as a character, whose quiet, seething bigotry would not boil over in so random and preposterous a manner, this episode has a weirdly tangential connection with the rest of the film.
It’s not only cheap but also a tad pointless, a greater sin given that Hunt shows the potential for what a more developed and fully integrated version of the smuggling sequences might have looked like. Ray and Lila’s occasional brushes with the law allow for sharp moments of contrast between the two women who, despite relatively equal economic status and gender conformity, are treated with markedly different levels of hostility based upon their race. It’s a fact not lost on either woman, and as they grow closer they use it to their advantage (when pulled over late in the film, Lila calms a panicky Ray with the following sentiment: “Remember, you’re white”). This commentary on the malleable nature of prejudice in the face of class hardships is never given its full due (while played with intriguing minimalism by Upham, Lila remains, by and large, a tenuously drawn character); neither is the metaphorical and cinematic value of the river itself, a potentially potent visualization of the characters’ fragile, perilous lives. Hunt captures a bit of the river’s echoing vastness in long shots that dwarf the vehicle in a sea of blank, barren gray. Yet her reliance on perfunctory two-shots within the car’s interior rarely gives us a feel for the hazardous geography of the terrain itself. For a director skilled at effectively sketching landscape elsewhere, this comes as a particularly acute disappointment.
Even at its most irritating, however, Frozen River never flies too far off the deep end, thanks to Leo’s sterling work. Often the best performances contain moments when you find yourself partially detaching from the filmic universe to acknowledge the craft on-screen, but I don’t recall this happening to me when watching Leo; there is rarely a moment when the performance feels showy or even skillful in the usual sense. Every action seems drawn from within and driven by a tightly coiled sense of purpose; even her tears flood over with economy and lack of flash. Almost sharklike in her relentless sense of forward motion, Leo’s Ray is also delicate and disarmingly moving, suggesting a rich inner life and personal history, hinted at in throwaway moments and tiny rituals. I found myself wondering about Ray’s past actions and present quirks: What do those tattoos signify? Why does she constantly change her voicemail message? Will she ever use that collection of soaps and lotions she stores in the bathroom, which she looks upon with a mixture of pride and sorrow? What did she want out of life? What does she still want? We ultimately care deeply about Ray, but not because we pity her economic status, or her emotional baggage, or even those “bangs that coil wormlike across her forehead.” We care because we imagine her life expanding outward beyond the confines of the film itself, gaining heartbreak and hope in equal measure.