Sunday, January 04, 2009

FROZEN RIVER: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Melissa Leo, Misty Upham, Charlie McDermott, Michael O’Keefe
Director: Courtney Hunt
Runtime: 97 min.
Rating: ****1/2
Genre: Crime, Drama

        It is remarkable how much of Frozen River resonates the depth of the best male-bonding films, despite the fact that the relationship here is shared by two women. It might as well be described as an out and out male film, and the most fascinating aspect is how the film uses the traditional themes that most male movies employ, movies that most often concern themselves with the heist, gangster or crime genres, and pulls them out of that fantasy world and re-imagines them as the harsh realities and motivations of everyday life. Like the one last heist the guy wants to pull off before settling with the love of his life, but instead gets caught in a tangle. That kind of premise, in a movie like Carlito’s Way, makes for a good deal of entertainment. Here, with a mother raising two kids aged fifteen and five on a half-time job at the Yankee Dollar Store, feeding them popcorn and tang for dinner, and filling gas not by the demands of her car but by the pennies in her pocket makes for a vastly different and devastating cinema.
        Of course there’s the need for money, and of course there’re the kids, but it is strange how so few good movies get made that examine the profound relation being felt by a kid and his single mom, in the same poetic as the best of the father-son films. I don’t know, but I feel it concerns the mother as much as the father how the kid looks upto her. Yes, in our world, a father is our idea of God, and he ought to be the hero the son emulates. But then, I believe the mother is often as much as a larger-than-life figure too, and that kind of a responsibility is a great motivation. And if Frozen River feels like the 3:10 to Yuma of this year, that is because it is, sharing and examining many of the same themes, but brought to life by the practicalities of everyday. And at his soul is the same kind of bond that transcends the margins of its world just like it melted everything that existed between Ben Wade and Dan Evans. There, it had a mythological feel to it; here it is as gritty and as real as it possibly can be.
        It is Christmas time here, in upstate New York, right down at the Canadian border where carpets of ice seems to have frozen everything in sight. The river too, the river running between the American and Canadian borders, which I learn is the St. Lawrence, and it is an uneasy road this time of the year. There’s ice, and there’s black ice, and right near to it is the Mohawk reservation territory. If the white working-class citizens of the area share a rather cold relationship with the residents of the Rez (short for the Reservation Area), and if the police doesn’t necessarily indulge itself with them either, it ought not to come as a matter of any great surprise.
        The people here seem to live mostly on trailers, with rented television sets and the snow around is not a mere visual flavor employed by the film (say like Fargo), but a variable of the way of life out here. And it is not just the ice around. There’s slush, there’s mud, and there’s the cold freezing the exposed water pipes with old insulation smoldering, so much so that insulated homes is a large part of the house they desire. The only source of interaction with other folks seems to be a Rez Bingo center, and of course a superstore nearby. That is the kind of details Ms. Hunt brings to her film, which as most good dramas feels borne out of day-to-day life. She doesn’t use these hardships as a cause of despair, but as mere everyday-life circumstances, where a dream of a new trailer house is shattered when the husband, a chronic gambling addict, flees with the money to God knows where, and leaves the mother and two kids high and dry, or maybe low and cold right before Christmas. Awesome dad.
        Such is the situation Ray Eddy (Ms. Leo, 21 Grams) finds herself in, broken and shattered, but not so catastrophic to derail their very lives. Her five-year old son, Ricky (little James Reilly) was so enthusiastic about the new house that he had packed his little suitcase and was ready in the morning even before he was asked to. The trailer delivery guy comes and asks for the $4372 balloon payment, and realizing that there’s no money, asks her to get it by Christmas or lose the $1500 already deposited. Her elder son, T.J. (Charlie McDermott) does understand what her mother is going through and finds it an opportune moment to put across the demand to let him find a part-time job. She rejects it flat-out again, insisting that he has got to finish school, and his job is to look after his kid brother. He asks her, aren’t we even going to look for him. She replies, what run across the state and miss work, no.
        But she does, not run across the state but pay a visit to the bingo center. She sees the car parked, and she runs to the counter, and a Mohawk woman who works at the center gets out and unlocks the car and drives. Ray chases her in her own car, right down to the trailer the woman lives in, which happens to be on the Rez. Ray thinks her husband Troy is inside the trailer and she shouts at him from outside to return the money. The woman inside is Lila (Ms. Upham), and she is the lone resident of her ultra-small trailer. Not out of choice, but because her husband was found tangled and dead in the river weeds, and because her one-year son has been stolen by her mother-in-law. She needs a car with a trunk, and she claims she picked up Ray’s husband’s car because it was abandoned at the center. I mean, in her defense she had the keys to the car.
        This is a wonderful scene of instincts taking over, so brilliantly written and so brilliantly acted. Lila knows what’s wrong here, and she immediately proposes a deal that involves selling the extra car for a hefty amount, somewhere to the tune of $2000. This has been a desperate morning for Ray, and she latches on to it, although she pretends she is reluctant. There’s a great deal to a single woman than meets the eye. They deal is to sell it across the border in Canada, and they drive on the frozen river. They turn up there, and ray realizes it isn’t a car-sell deal, but there’s $1200 each to illegally transport immigrants into US territory. It is big money mind you, and little Ricky is expecting a Hot Wheels toy car from Daddy, and the new trailer house from Santa. The general consensus is that state troopers don’t stop cars with whites anyway. Ms. Hunt doesn’t use this discrimination on the troopers’ part as some sort of social commentary but as part of the reality of life around here.
        One of the great aspects of her direction and screenplay here is she doesn’t botch the relationship that ensues between Lila and Ray by some easy-minded movie-driven cliché treatment, but wisely relies on the two women and their circumstances to do the talking. Not a false word is spoken, not a false glance is exchanged, and what is brought to life between them is deep, profound and touching than for just that very reason. It feels real. Maybe, it is real. So much so that not a single moment feels like a performance of any kind, and the quiet courage they exhibit feels as if the two women have drawn it from their real life. Credit ought to be given to all three women here, Ms. Hunt, Ms. Leo and Ms. Upham, that they don’t let the film beg for our sympathy at any time, and that is the reason they earn every bit of it. This is Ms. Hunt’s debut film and she exhibits a rare kind of gritty relationship fostered by a resilience which seems to be driven by the grimness of life, while silently and subtly building a relation of great emotional and spiritual depth, that is as hopeful and assuring and as warm as anything I have ever seen. What makes it an even rarer film is that it quietly assumes the tone of a thriller, and we don’t even realize it.
        Ms. Hunt and her cinematographer don’t waste even a single moment of this performance, and often their choice feels like the best possible one to capture. Be it Ray’s interaction with her son T.J., or Ray’s interaction with Lila. The manner in which the two-shot is employed is impeccable, so is the close-up. A scene of confrontation between Ray and her son is infinitely touching, and it is a brilliant exhibition of technique. This is the kind of film where you don’t even need to push your low-budget-ignore-the-technical-glitches button, because it feels straight from Ms. Hunt’s heart. It shows in the way her characters are inherently compassionate and understanding, including the trooper. And this is why I don’t understand why most are considering the film as grim and sad, because this is as uplifting a film as there can be out of such lives. Anymore, and we might end up watching a movie.

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