Smugglers’ Blues

FROZEN RIVER
Running time 97 minutes
Written and DIRECTED BY Courtney Hunt
Starring Melissa Leo, Misty Upham

Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River, from her own screenplay, plays out as one of the strongest feminist statements I have ever seen onscreen. Her two major characters, Ray (Melissa Leo), an abandoned trailer-park wife with two children, and Lila (Misty Upham), a similarly abandoned wife, whose mother-in-law has “stolen” her baby son, join forces in an alien-smuggling partnership across the frozen ice of the St. Lawrence River. Their alliance, formed out of desperate economic hardship, has a very rocky beginning, as Ray accuses Lila of stealing her husband’s car, which has been parked outside a Mohawk Reservation Bingo Hall with cash prizes. Ray even pulls a gun on Lila as the Mohawk resident calmly explains that she saw Ray’s husband and another woman board a bus for Atlantic City, after the husband had left the key in the ignition. This story makes sense to Ray because she is well aware that her husband has stolen the family’s down payment on a double-wide dream home so that he could gamble with it. The always phlegmatic Lila is no stranger to guns, and at one point, Ray and Lila struggle for Ray’s gun with a ferocity bespeaking the hardened women they have become in the brutalizing Canadian winter. Still, the grimness of their travails does not make this ideal summer fare, despite the drastic drop in temperature.

In her Director’s Statement in the film’s production notes, Ms. Hunt relates the genesis of Frozen River thusly: “I wrote this film after learning about women smugglers at the border of New York State and Canada who drive their cars across the frozen St. Lawrence River to make money to support their kids. The risk involved compelled me to write a story about smuggling at the northern border, but also about what life circumstances would lead someone to take such chances. What I discovered was that a mother’s instinct to protect her children is more powerful than any cultural, political or economic boundary line. Melissa Leo (Ray) and Misty Upham (Lila) embodied the unheralded struggle of single mothers of all ethnicities who are living on the edge.”

To be sure, Ray and Lila, together or singly, are in almost every frame of the film, often in enormous close-ups of a gritty and well-worn monumentality. The film was shot in Plattsburgh, N.Y., in the dead of winter, and many townspeople contributed their services to the overall ambience of the community shown on the screen.

There is also a cryptic subplot involving Ray’s teenage son and his responsibility in taking care of his much younger kid brother while Ray is out working. In addition to her other worries, Ray is forced to deal with her son’s smoldering resentment about the broken marriage, seemingly blaming his mother for the breakup. For her part, Ray refuses to let her son quit school and get a job to help the family finances.

Ray eventually finds herself with two jobs, one low paying, in what passes for a supermarket in this desolate region, and the other very high paying, for smuggling, together with Lila, Chinese and Pakistani illegal aliens into the United States in the trunk of her Dodge Spirit over the frozen river of the film’s title. Even in this remote part of the world, especially in midwinter, there are law-enforcement watchdogs on both sides of the river. And one night, Ray and Lila find themselves in deep peril.

I must say I didn’t entirely understand all the details of the narrative, particularly the telephone scam with credit-card numbers practiced by Ray’s older son to buy a Christmas game for his younger brother. Fortunately, the worst never happens, which, in this forbidding scenario, would be a clear case of overkill. Ms. Leo and Ms. Upham somehow project an aura of indestructibility around Ray and Lila that should prove thematically and spiritually invigorating for adult audiences with a feeling for the heroism of everyday life.

asarris@observer.com

 

Smugglers’ Blues