Monday, September 5, 2016
52 Films By Women: Frozen River (2008)
Frozen River follows the story of a working class mother named Ray (Melissa Leo) who can barely make ends meet: Her absent husband is a compulsive gambler, she works part time as a store clerk, and her children live off of popcorn and Tang for food. But when Ray meets Lila (Misty Upham) who smuggles illegals to the U.S. from the Canada to the New York border, she begins to find the journey to keep her head up above frozen waters to be treacherous.
The film's greatest strength lies in its two main performances. Melissa Leo gives perhaps the best performance of her rather eclectic career as Ray, a loving mother who sees her morality become corrupted yet not once does Leo dwell on the melodrama or beg for out forgiveness. Misty Upham is a scene stealer as Lila, an indigenous smuggler who seems like a perfect match for Ray because she is just as hard nosed and refuses to be a pity figure. However, because Lila is already involved in the smuggling business when we first meet her, her moral conscience slowly awakens once the film progresses. Exemplary performance by a gifted actress who tragically left us too soon. Misty Upham, you will be missed.
I also want to give a shoutout to Charlie McDermott as Ray's eldest son T.J.. I thought both he and Melissa Leo had a very interesting dynamic as while both their characters love each other, they're still at odds with one another. In fact, T.J. would occasionally prod at Ray's guilty conscience.
One thing about the screenplay by writer/director Courtney Hunt is the opening scene. We see the poor living conditions of Ray and her family while they mention Ray's husband being absent. Right at the beginning, Hunt sets the dreary tone that becomes present throughout the picture.
Another thing about the film that I really liked is the cinematography by Reed Morano. It was neat how she would occasionally film short sequences of the scenery ranging from the leaveless trees and the empty roads to the ice on the ground. It not only captures the feel of the setting but the film's chilly tone and atmosphere which is one of the film's greatest strengths: Acting and atmosphere.
Overall, Frozen River is a haunting and atmospheric portrait of small town America that features extremely well-acted performances by Melissa Leo and Misty Upham. Even if this film doesn't have a Hollywood plot about the pursuit of the American Dream, it still portrays the everyday struggle to get by and the dark turns people take to do so.