When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences hands out its annual Oscar awards on February 22nd, it's a sure bet we won't see Melissa Leo joyfully rushing the podium to collect a gold statuette as Best Actress for her portrayal of a frazzled mother driven to extremes in 'Frozen River.' Not that she doesn't deserve it. On the contrary, Leo disappears inside her role and files arguably the year's most natural, least histrionic performance – and that includes yours, Kate Winslet. From her first revealing close-up (an unblemished portrait of desolation and barely contained anguish), Leo rivets our attention and holds it throughout Courtney Hunt's tight, thoughtful independent film. Sadly, though, not enough Academy voters will probably take the time to see this quiet gem to give Leo a shot at victory on Oscar night.
'Frozen River' is one of those rare films that transports us to an unfamiliar place and submerges us in the everyday lives and problems of its residents. What we witness not only piques our interest from a narrative standpoint, but opens our eyes to issues and dynamics we never knew existed. Hunt's simple, straightforward style keeps the film intently focused on the story and, coupled with the unaffected performances, lends 'Frozen River' a realistic look and feel that separates it from more mainstream works. In this been-there-done-that, seen-it-all world, we often forget how many hidden nooks and crannies still exist in our country, and Hunt shines an unbiased beacon on one such area in upstate New York.
In the remote, economically depressed town of Massena, white residents delicately coexist with Mohawk Indians, whose nearby reservation sits snugly along the Canadian border. A fair amount of latent prejudice divides the two races, and it's amid this bleak environment that Ray Eddy (Leo) struggles to keep her family's life on an even keel after her no-good gambler husband leaves her almost penniless a week before Christmas. Unable to put food on the table (unless you consider popcorn and Tang a square meal), buy her kids presents or, most importantly, make the balloon payment on her dream double-wide trailer home, Ray still tries her damnedest to maintain a sense of normalcy for T.J. (Charlie McDermott), her sullen teenage son who blames her for his dad's desertion, and Ricky (James Reilly), his sunny five-year-old brother. But when her boss at the Yankee One Dollar Store refuses to increase her hours, the desperate mom goes outside the law to try and wrangle the necessary cash to secure her double-wide and, at least temporarily, end her family's hand-to-mouth existence.
A chance encounter with Lila (Misty Upham), a bitter young Mohawk widow whose mother-in-law absconded with her newborn son a year ago, leads Ray into the shady world of smuggling – but we're not talking common commodities like drugs or stolen goods. The women play a more perilous game, carting illegal aliens in the trunk of Ray's car across the Canadian border into America via the frozen, unpatrolled St. Lawrence River. The risky endeavor pays big dividends, but its inherent danger may further derail the two mothers' crumbling lives.
At its core, 'Frozen River' is a tale of boundaries and the courage it takes to push past them. The river itself, the border, the limits of the law, the line of truth – all these are crossed with both trepidation and determination by Ray and Lila. Though aware and afraid of their actions' risks and consequences, their dead-end lives offer them no other viable course. They do what they do out of necessity, not greed, and they don't apologize or feel remorse when things go awry. In many ways, 'Frozen River' harkens back to the classic mother-love movies of the 1930s and 1940s, when heroines nobly sacrificed everything for their offspring. The major difference here? There's nary a sentimental frame in Hunt's film. Ray and Lila don't have the time or patience to mope and cry about their respective predicaments; Ray must provide for her children, while Lila works to garner the strength, confidence, and wherewithal to reclaim her baby son. Such noble passions transcend the laws and moral codes of any society, American or Indian. To these women, smuggling is a necessary evil, a means to an end. And self-pity is a luxury neither can afford.
Hunt, who also wrote the original screenplay, keeps her characters in the moment and records their actions with a documentarian's sense of detachment. No self-conscious camera angles or manipulative tricks muck up 'Frozen River'; Hunt's film is as raw as Massena's winter chill, and draws its power from the palpable ache consuming Ray and Lila. Considerable suspense and tension also creep into the story, but again, Hunt allows such elements to develop and play out naturally, which heightens their effectiveness.
Ultimately, tone is the name of the game, and 'Frozen River' strikes few wrong notes. Leo the lioness may not get a chance to roar on Oscar night, but hopefully the publicity her nomination has generated will widen the audience of this small, potent, and rewarding film, which deserves every viewer it gets.
The stark, barren landscapes and dingy interiors don't provide much in the way of eye candy, but the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer still offers up a clean, well-defined image. 'Frozen River' was reportedly shot in HD (which helps explain the absence of grain), but still exhibits the gritty, muted look of independent filmmaking. With the predominance of gray skies, ice, and snow casting a monochromatic pall over the film, one might think banding would be an issue, but any tonal variation is completely natural. When colors do grab focus, they're true and well balanced, much like the accurate fleshtones. Close-ups, of course, fare best, and the heightened clarity adds layers to the characterizations. (Leo's chapped, careworn face speaks volumes.) Plenty of night scenes give the solid black levels ample opportunity to shine, although some digital noise is visible in low light, and fine details are often lost.
Much like the philosophy of the movie itself, this transfer is what it is. It accurately reflects its source material and honors the film's storyline, but never calls attention to itself, nor does it pack on any digital enhancements to improve its look.
The 5.1 Dolby TrueHD surround track doesn't provide any sonic fireworks, but supplies serviceable sound with very faint ambient accents. Of course, most of the activity is directed up front, with dialogue always clear and comprehendible. The crunch of the snow and hum of car engines are crisp and full bodied, and some natural atmospherics, such as breezes, gently wrap around us, but you really have to listen to pick them up. In quiet moments, the track can be quite detailed – when Leo drags on her cigarette in the opening scene, you can hear the paper burn – and the music nicely enhances the mood without being obtrusive.
Does 'Frozen River' warrant TrueHD sound? Probably not. But it's sure nice to have it, and Sony deserves kudos for realizing fine audio is an essential aspect of any Blu-ray disc, regardless of genre, budget, or potential sales.
Considering its independent status, it's not surprising 'Frozen River' only includes a single extra (aside from trailers), but it's too bad a short featurette with cast and crew interviews couldn't have been included to add extra perspective to the film.
A searing portrait of poverty and resilience in the face of despair, 'Frozen River' quietly and methodically absorbs us, thanks to its fascinating story, unobtrusive direction, and a first-rate performance by Melissa Leo. It may not be a reference disc for picture and sound, but it could be one for independent filmmaking. Due to its muted video and audio transfers and lack of notable supplements, 'Frozen River' may not merit a blind buy, but it deserves to be seen, and those who seek it out won't be disappointed.