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Strapped for money and having been deserted by her husband, working class Ray (Melissa Leo), reluctantly teams up with Lila (Misty Upham), a widowed Mohawk Indian, to smuggle illegal immigrants across the frozen St. Lawrence River from Canada to the U.S. in the trunk of a Dodge Spirit. Both women swear each trip will be their last, but one final run across the river leads to a showdown with the law on all sides.
For more about Frozen River and the Frozen River Blu-ray release, see Frozen River Blu-ray Review published by Casey Broadwater on June 21, 2009 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.5 out of 5.
Starring: Melissa Leo, Misty Upham, Michael O'Keefe, Charlie McDermott
Director: Courtney Hunt
» See full cast & crew
Frozen River Blu-ray Review
"There's no border here. This is free trade between nations."
Reviewed by Casey Broadwater, June 21, 2009
In a letter to a friend, Czech writer Franz Kafka once wrote "I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us…What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we'd been banished to the woods, far from any human presence, like a suicide. A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us." If you substitute the word film for book in Kafka's confident, if unbalanced assertion, then Frozen River, the little seen but largely acclaimed 2008 drama from writer/director Courtney Hunt, fits his grim criteria with room to spare. Frozen River is bleak and matter-of-fact in its documentary-like examination of poverty, and honest in its portrayal of the dark trials a mother will endure to provide for her brood.
Frozen River opens on a dismal grey and wind-swept landscape, with the horizon line as the only feature to differentiate the earth from the sky. This is the North Country of upstate New York, where the borders between America, Canada, and the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation bleed and overlap indefinably. From here, the film cuts to a similarly battered vista—the creased and chapped face of Ray Eddy (Oscar-nominated Melissa Leo) as she cries on her front stoop and tries to pull together the emotional wherewithal to make it through another day. The camera frames her unflinchingly; every line of her face speaks to a hard life, every tear-stained rivulet a squelched dream. Within the first five minutes of the film it's clear what we're in for as an audience—a beautifully broken and true-to-life performance from Melissa Leo, who does indeed elevate Frozen River from just another down-and-out indie offering to something breathable and real.
Ray Eddy is a clerk at the Yankee Dollar discount store, a mother of two, and the wife of a gambling-addict husband who has run off to Atlantic City with the down payment for the house of her dreams—a doublewide trailer with three bedrooms and a Jacuzzi tub. While searching for him at a nearby bingo parlor, Ray finds her husband's car, albeit now being driven by Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham), a young Mohawk mother who thought the car had been abandoned. Lila convinces Ray to sell the car to a smuggler across the border, but this is quickly revealed to be a ruse. When they arrive at the smuggler's trailer, he ushers two Chinese men into the trunk of the car, hands Ray a packet of money, and confirms that the other half of the dough is waiting at the drop point. Since her children are subsiding on popcorn and Tang, and since this smuggling business seems to be easy money, Ray agrees to do a few more runs with Lila, vowing to quit when she scrapes together the cash to buy her doublewide. Of course, all does not go as planned, and when the police and tribal council get wind of their border crossing operation, Ray is forced into an ethical dilemma that will affect the lives of both women and their children.
Frozen River could've easily come across like a ham-fisted Big Issues movie, but writer and director Courtney Hunt thankfully imbues the film with subtleties that point out social problems without delivering a lecture (Crash, anyone?). Immigrants are smuggled across the border, yes, but this isn't a movie about border control or immigration policy. The story is entrenched in the lives of its characters, not the socio-political agenda of its creator. It's a human tale about desperation, pure and simple, and about the mental, emotional, and even criminal barriers that a woman is able to cross when her family's livelihood is on the line. That said, Hunt's portrayal of poverty's landscape is visually acute—see the littered front yards, the why try trailer exteriors, the small and cluttered rooms. The American Dream pushes everyone—rich and poor alike—to live beyond their means, and this is hinted at by the huge, flat-panel, Rent-to-Own television that overwhelms Ray's tiny living room like the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
While Melissa Leo's performance is stunning—really, this is enough to see the film alone— Frozen River isn't perfect. Certain plot points are ice-thin and many of the surrounding actors just can't live up to Leo's weary authenticity. The ending too may strike some as implausible, and patently optimistic for a film that has trudged through so much hard-earned grief, but I felt it was the only moment of artifice in an otherwise dead-on narrative. This kind of material can often slip into the sentimental, but Frozen River parses the weepy nonsense of similar stories and gives us the cold, hard facts.
Frozen River Blu-ray, Video Quality
Frozen River was filmed on video in 720p and makes the transition to this 1080p AVC MPEG-4 transfer relatively unscathed. While I'm not often fond of video, the medium suits the subject matter here, giving Frozen River a gritty documentary vibe. As such, many of the issues I have with the film visually are by-products of the source material and not necessarily of the transfer. Video is generally poor at handling dynamic levels of contrast, and it shows in the overblown whites that make up some of the film's skies. Black levels are strong, for the most part, but there were one or two scenes (Lila in the tree, in particular) that were much too dark and had me craning toward my display to make out detail. Naturally, these dark moments also harbor the film's most intense digital noise. Like I said, though, video is an effective choice for Frozen River, and this is apparent in that first, brilliant close-up of Melissa Leo. The lines of her tired face are sharp, almost unrelenting, and her splotchy skin tones are rendered with unhindered realism. This is what it looks like when a broken woman cries.
Frozen River Blu-ray, Audio Quality
This Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track certainly gets the job done, but I couldn't help but feel it was dynamically flat. Imagine the deep, bone splitting crack of ice as it groans apart, feet crunching through the snow at a hurried pace, the wind whipping violently overhead. Can you hear that? I can too, and I really wish it was represented more fully in Frozen River's audio offering. Still, I understand that sound effects are not always the chief concern during a lower-budget shoot, and with that in mind, the sound here completely suffices. Voices are clear and clean, ambient noises occasionally grace the rear channels, and the soundtrack—a haunting and reverb-heavy guitar drone—fills the sound field with an appropriate, melancholy menace.
Frozen River Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Audio Commentary with Writer/Director Courtney Hunt and Producer Heather Rae
This track, while not uninformative, is a bit of a disappointment. As two women in a largely male- dominated field, and with a film that deals with such broad (not in that way) issues, I was hoping that Hunt and Rae might speak more to the challenges and expectations faced by female filmmakers, or opine about poverty and race issues in North America. What we get, instead, are dry, day-by-day comments about the physical act of shooting the film. I wouldn't go so far as to call it boring, but the commentary certainly doesn't make watching the film any less bleak.
Theatrical Trailer and Previews (1080p)
Frozen River Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
The titular frozen river, as a symbol, aptly describes the economic and emotional thin ice that Ray perilously skates. One small crack could send her into a deadly undercurrent of debt and familial disintegration. Small, first-time productions such as Frozen River also tread on perilous terrain—budgets get cut, schedules are tight, and the critical/financial response is a great, icy unknown. It's good to see, then, that Frozen River weathered the proverbial storms and came through as a strong debut from director Courtney Hunt, and I definitely look forward to Northline, her next project. Though it may not wow home theater buffs with technical glitz, Frozen River offers up a far humbler but more substantive honesty, and while I wouldn't recommend it as a blind-buy (this isn't a film you'll watch often), it's certainly worth checking out.
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