If the title Frozen River readily reminds us of Mystic River, there are areas of thematic crossover between the two, as well. In writer/director Courtney Hunt’s brilliant, emotionally engaging film, the river itself becomes a magnetic and recurring metaphorical entity, an allegorical and literal passageway-between the U.S. and Canada, innocence and culpability-over which our troubled protagonists cross and court volatile fate. In Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River, the river also carries symbolic and even Biblical power, but is ultimately a darker and deeper place, with redemption only a faint, submerged undercurrent.
A toast of this year’s Sundance Festival, Frozen River is a small miracle of a film, made with humble means and plenty of handheld cameras. It demonstrates how the film medium can still address what it means to be human, and savor the atmosphere of outposts Hollywood never knew existed. Take, for example, Plattsburgh, New York, a bleak, cold, open area at the Northeastern border of Canada. It’s also the humble home of our cash-strapped, trailer-dwelling heroine, a mother of two named Ray (Melissa Leo in an Oscar-worthy performance). Dreaming of acquiring “the balloon payment on [her] new doublewide,” but saddled with a savings-sucking, gamble-holic husband (who we never see), she falls into a scheme with a stoic-yet similarly desperate-young Mohawk woman named Lila (Misty Upham) she meets at a high stakes bingo parlor.
Although the film unfolds with a natural and unpretentious flow, beautiful circularity weaves in and out of Hunt’s script and narrative. Desperation born of parental love and concern leads to criminal activity, involving smuggling immigrants dreaming of better lives. The unlikely friendship of Ray and Lila becomes the growing core of the story. At the risk of playing the gender sensibility card, the central role of women in the project-from the writer/director down into the story itself-imparts a certain gentility and compassion amid the inherent toughness of the tale and the setting. Would a male filmmaker have upped the ante of violence or darker elements? It’s an open question.
Whether or not this film gets its due attention in theaters and in critical regard, Frozen River is clearly one of the finest American films of the year. It’s an inspiration as a story well told and as a prime example of the vitality of the filmic art form, outside the system.