"Frozen River" is one of those films that would be laughed out of the independent film scene if there wasn't a mesmerizing lead performance to hold it together. The actress is Melissa Leo ("21 Grams," "Homicide: Life on the Streets"), and her work here is stirring, haunting, and singlehandedly maintains a pitch-perfect tone of weathered anxiety the rest of "River" is all too quick to fumble.
A single mother living in a desolate New York border town, Ray (Melissa Leo) is falling behind on her bills, struggling to feed her children and fund a balloon payment for her prized double-wide accommodations. When she meets Native American outcast Lila (Misty Upham, "Skins") through a misunderstanding, Ray is lured into the world of human smuggling, using her car to cross a frozen river to Canada to pick up illegals to return to America. Enchanted by the easy money made, Ray pushes Lila for further instruction, hoping her newfound job can save her financially, only to find the real price of her actions when the law begins to sniff around.
When we first meet Ray, she's sitting alone, contemplating her future - a distressing act that causes her to weep and nervously work over a cigarette. It's this first instant with Leo that communicates an entire life lived with disappointment and misfortune; first-time filmmaker Courtney Hunt fixating on the worry-funded creases across Ray's face. Leo doesn't have to utter a word to transmit hopelessness, which brings an immediate thematic rush to the early going of "River" the rest of the picture is never able to top.
Once the characters start verbalizing their fears and resentment, the picture deflates to a disconcerting degree. This observance of psychological wounds is beyond Hunt's skill level, who puts in a directorial effort akin to a person hanging on for dear life, not a secure examination of distress. Hunt doesn't paint broadly, just loudly, failing to rein in her cast when needed. The director is unable to conjure legitimate threat for Ray and Lila, sticking to hammy underworld clichés (portrayed with Hormel-approved panache by Mark Boone Junior) and vague border patrol stoicism (Michael O'Keefe) for tension. Hunt has questionable taste in camera placement as well, with critical junctures of "River" resembling a glorified student film.
Underneath the no-budget limitation is a persuasive story of mothers fighting passionately for their young, even when the battle takes them to the wrong side of the law. Leo and Upham capture the gut-churning wipe of depression, with both actresses executing sharply diverse, expressive takes on loss and dejection. As mentioned before, Leo is the miracle the picture needs, digging in deep within herself to help the audience buy into rash, dangerous decisions, making bottomless despair a nuanced disposition that faces the abyss without jumping in. Leo doesn't exactly achieve a tone of hope here (further accented in the film's racial unease), but more a frustrated complacency that's riveting to watch.
As much as "Frozen River" pushes emotional catharsis by the end of the story, I wasn't moved enough to respond the way Hunt was intending. The film is better appreciated as a harrowing portrayal of minimum-wage melancholy and three-dimensional lead characterization, not a weepy, scrappy art-house signal flare.
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