'Frozen River': Lives That Are an Upstream Battle

Misty Upham and Melissa Leo captivate in the gritty drama with a shattering ending.
Misty Upham and Melissa Leo captivate in the gritty drama with a shattering ending. (By Jory Sutton -- Sony Pictures Classics)
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By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 29, 2008

The opening shot of the quietly gripping drama "Frozen River" ends with a close-up of actress Melissa Leo, whose face resembles a Depression-era Dorothea Lange portrait in its hard grief. As Ray Eddy, a single mother of two living in a trailer in Upstate New York, Leo delivers a tough, utterly mesmerizing performance as a woman whose desperation to do right by her kids sends her on a journey all the more astonishing for being so believable.

Abandoned by her husband, a compulsive gambler, and ignored for a promotion at the dollar store where she works, Ray crosses paths with Lila (Misty Upham), who lives on the nearby Mohawk reservation. To earn quick money, Lila persuades Ray to drive illegal immigrants across a frozen river, which won't get them into trouble as long as they stay on the rez.

Written and directed with uncommon assurance by newcomer Courtney Hunt, "Frozen River" plunges viewers into the bleak, wintry slushscape of working-class life, where people live on the economic edges, scraping for change in the back of a couch to come up with lunch money. Ray and her two boys -- well played by the young actors Charlie McDermott and James Reilly -- eat popcorn for breakfast, but they have a big-screen TV that takes up almost an entire wall of their single-wide. Hunt takes note of such details without judgment; rather, she simply and acutely observes the facts of life in a wildly over-leveraged America.

Similarly, Hunt captures the realities of illegal immigration, not on the southern border, where most such stories are set, but by way of Canada. Without polemic, "Frozen River" touches on nearly every hot-button issue there is: exploitation of undocumented workers, terrorism, human trafficking, sexual slavery. But like this year's equally compelling "Under the Same Moon," Hunt's "Frozen River" is essentially about the lengths parents will go for their children, as well as what they'll ask of them. (A DJ on the radio station Ray listens to on her way to work aptly expresses the film's leitmotif: It's all about the kids.)

As Ray becomes more mired in what becomes an increasingly sordid business, it comes as no shock when events spiral out of her and Lila's control. But "Frozen River" still possesses all manner of surprises, not least of which is how the women's friendship deepens, with relatively few words between them. In a stolid, terse performance, Upham -- another newcomer -- holds her own with Leo, who dominates "Frozen River" with the role of a lifetime. (Viewers may not know her name, but they'll recognize her from the TV show "Homicide" and more recently the movie "21 Grams.") At once tough and vulnerable, hard-bitten and gentle, Leo inhabits her character with uncompromising courage, and without a trace of vanity, from nonchalantly stripping to reveal Ray's now-ancient tattoos to donning her signature tatty bathrobe and snow boots.

By the time "Frozen River" reaches its shattering conclusion, Ray is no longer a character but a full-blooded person viewers have come to care about, even at her most heedless. And it's at this point that Hunt's filmmaking skills come most sharply into focus, as she crafts that most elusive of endings: the one that's not happy exactly, or sad, but just right.

Frozen River (97 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for some profanity.

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