In American movies, money usually appears in big round figures—tens of thousands owed to a thug or millions nabbed in a daring heist—and the "average" character is middle-class-verging-on-upper, as the spacious apartments, shopping sprees, and second homes attest.
Watching Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo) fishing change out of her jeans pocket each day for her two kids' lunch or thrilled to suddenly discover a crumpled five she can convert into another gallon or two at the gas pump provides as stark a contrast to the usual Hollywood economics as Leo's roadmap of a face does to the typical starlet's unlined kisser. And though Ray is poor, unlike most lower-income people in the movies, hers is not a character part, mere set dressing, or a convenient foil for the lead's ultimate enlightenment. Indie sleeper/Academy Award dark horse Frozen River, new to DVD, tells her story, and her poverty sets the intricate wheels of rookie writer/director Courtney Hunt's plot spinning inexorably forward.
Ray's husband, a gambling addict, has fled the snowbanks and mud puddles of their upstate New York town with the family's meager savings a week or so before Christmas, leaving her with nothing but excuses when a semi shows up to deliver the first section of the family's much anticipated double-wide. She finally tracks down her wayward husband's car, only to watch as a young Mohawk Indian woman gets into it and drives away. It turns out that Lila (Misty Upham) is having no easier a time of it than Ray, but she has a way to make some cash: smuggling Chinese illegal immigrants across the title waterway from Canada via the Mohawk reservation. Lila needs a car to make the runs, Ray needs money, and a couple of quick paydays from her uneasy alliance with Lila find Ray feeling almost hopeful as Christmas approaches. But Hunt's script has already established Ray's luck, and pushing it as she does with Lila, it's not long before things become even more desperate than before.
The long, slow, close-up-tight pan over the entire length of Ray's body that begins Frozen River pulls no punches about her. The small tattoos hint at a hopeful but ill-advised youth, the frowsy fleece robe reveals that she shops infrequently and on the supercheap, the cigarette smoldering in pale, bony fingers broadcasts worry and hard living even before the camera meets her anxious gaze. Leo's flinty, surgery-free beauty and emotional volubility have won her a lot of jobs playing blue-collar women in the past five years, most notably in 21 Grams and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, but Ray is her meatiest role since her run on TV's Homicide in the '90s. Even as Ray's racism and her inconsistent parenting of teenage T.J. and Ricky (Charlie McDermott and James Reilly, respectively) take you aback, the gnawing worry and good heart that Leo embodies with the pugnacious set of her mouth and welling eyes reel you back in.
As good as Leo is here, credit is due to Hunt's half of the creation. Her script and her vision provide the cheap "cheery" pastels of Ray's clothes and beauty products, which make the character's busted-ass trailer and laundry-bag wardrobe seem even more grim. And it's the neat geometry of Hunt's script that pushes Ray forward and keeps you right with her as, with her options closing behind her and unpleasant courses of action yawning ahead, Ray pulls out onto the ice.
Frozen River is crammed with perfect details (when Ray's kids get popcorn and Tang for dinner, it's not the first time), but there are also overly obvious bits that knock it a hair or two off its bedrock realism (e.g. the prefab home peddler is named Guy Versailles). And while the drama of Ray's predicament mounts as drama does, by the time Mark Boone Jr. shows up as a sleazy Canadian smuggler with a Pepe le Pew accent, Frozen River starts to feel a little less than faithful to the hard truths and straight shots it has traded in up until then.
Ultimately, though, Frozen River serves as a welcome reminder of Leo's talent and serves notice that whatever Hunt does next will be well worth watching out for. And while people generally go to the movies to escape their worries, being trapped in Ray's worn-down snowboots as she struggles not to lose her weakening grip on her American dream constitute some of the more affecting and memorable moments you'll spend in front of a screen this year.