FROZEN RIVER sss Written and directed by Courtney Hunt With Melissa Leo, Misty Upham, Charlie McDermott, Michael O’Keefe, and Mark Boone Jr.

In Courtney Hunt’s impressive debut feature, Frozen River, two women in upstate New York embark on a series of immigrant-smuggling runs, driving a beat-up Dodge Spirit across the frozen Saint Lawrence River into Quebec. The subzero temperatures have supposedly turned the river to solid ice, but as they crawl through the inky night, there’s always the danger that the ice will give way and send them plunging into the frigid waters. The situation is charged with suspense, and Hunt milks it for all it’s worth. But it’s also an apt metaphor for the sorry existence of Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo), the driver, whose husband has just left her with two kids and a bowl full of unpaid bills. Living in a single-wide trailer and working as a cashier at the local dollar store, Ray is just a paycheck away from crashing through the ice into destitution.

People like Ray don’t find their way into commercial movies very often. When the working poor do turn up on-screen, they’re usually suffering saints, hardened criminals, or tasteless clods. Treating them as individuals would involve taking account of their daily lives, and no one, rich or poor, goes to the movies to think about that. When a filmmaker takes a stab at it, she can count on getting smacked around from more than one direction. Jeffrey Lyons, reviewing Frozen River on Lyons & Bailes Reel Talk, couldn’t stop moaning about how “depressing” it was, while Armond White in the New York Press dismisses Hunt as a “self-righteous middle-class” filmmaker and the movie as “a bleeding-heart fantasy of how the poor scrape by.”

Of course no one living near the poverty line has the means to tell his own story on film, so attacking Hunt for her class is the sort of tack that effectively shuts down the discussion altogether. Frozen River may indeed be grim, but it seems like an honest portrait of a flawed person in dire financial straits. To paraphrase Hemingway’s famous put-down of Fitzgerald, Ray is no different from you or me—she just has less money.

Most of the movie’s press has focused on Leo, a talented character actor who’s been waiting two decades for a role like this. Fans of the standard-bearing cop show Homicide: Life on the Street will remember her as the tomboyish detective whose workaholism and guarded behavior toward men eventually flummoxed the show’s male writers; after five seasons she was replaced by a series of babes. As Benicio Del Toro’s anguished wife in 21 Grams and Tommy Lee Jones’s mistress in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Leo seemed to thrive in working-class settings, and she gives a fearless performance in Frozen River. Hunt introduces Ray with a long, merciless pan from the rose tattoo on her big toe to the cigarette dangling from her haggard face. Clad in a cheap bathrobe and windbreaker, she sits in the driver’s seat, the glove compartment hanging open; her husband, a gambling addict, has disappeared with the money they’ve been saving for a new double-wide.

In a big-studio movie, someone whose dream of the good life involved a double-wide trailer would probably be played for laughs. But as the story progresses, you begin to understand how all those lines got etched into Ray’s face. Frozen River is steeped in the soul-crushing details of life at the poverty line. Her boys have grown accustomed to popcorn and Tang for breakfast, and when she sends them off to school, she has to dig around in the couch cushions for their lunch money. Pulling up to the gas station, she asks the attendant to put $2.74 in the tank, then flashes him a winning grin after digging an overlooked five-spot out of her jeans. Her encounter with a delivery man she can’t pay is a mix of sweet talk and transparent lies, and at the dollar store her snotty young supervisor brushes her off when she brings up the promotion she’s been promised for a year, though he indulges a younger, prettier cashier who’s chronically late.

That constant sense of privation, of always being a couple dollars short for the basic needs of life, moves you squarely into Ray’s corner when she decides to venture outside the law in search of the $4,372 she needs to get her double-wide. But she’s not a simple victim: Hunt is honest in showing how the poor can blow their earnings on creature comforts they see in middle-class homes (like the Eddys’ big flat-screen TV, which is about to get repossessed, or the fancy beauty products Ray buys but seldom uses) instead of saving for more critical but less tangible assets (like education, or something more nutritious to eat than popcorn). With Christmas approaching, Ray’s five-year-old has his heart set on the Hot Wheels Blast n’ Crash set, whose magic has been drilled into him from endless TV commercials. It’s just another piece of materialist crap, but the fact that he isn’t likely to get it seems grossly unfair.

Hunt also avoids the comforting fiction of the noble poor—Ray isn’t one of those roses growing up through the concrete that Lillian Gish used to play. According to Ray’s sulky 15-year-old, T.J. (Charlie McDermott), Ray alienated his father with her constant nagging and even shot him in the foot after he spent their grocery money on lotto tickets. Ray and Lila (Misty Upham), the Mohawk woman who lures her into smuggling, are deeply mistrustful of each other; after their first run Lila bolts with all the money, and after the next one Ray kicks her out of the car empty-handed, snapping, “Now we’re even.” Ray’s departed husband is Native American, but being married to him hasn’t made her any more broad-minded: she doesn’t mind ferrying Chinese over the border in the trunk of her Dodge, but she balks when asked to transport a Pakistani couple, immediately pegging them as terrorists.

If Frozen River is accurate in portraying how the other half lives, its most unpleasant truth may be that the other half often divides again, the top quarter exploiting the bottom quarter. Ray is so desperate for cash she refuses to confront the fact that she’s trading in human chattel. On her second run she and Lila pick up two Chinese men, whose holders install them in the trunk barefoot and toss their shoes into the backseat; the reason for this, Lila explains, is so they can’t escape from the “snakeheads” who’ll collect $40,000 to $50,000 of their future earnings in return for the passage. Back at home Ray’s son T.J., left to his own devices, telephones a gullible old Mohawk woman with news of an inheritance and talks her into giving up her credit card number for a small “processing fee.” By the end of the movie Ray and Lila are dealing with a vicious Russian black marketer whose cargo, a pair of beautiful Chinese women, will almost certainly be sex slaves in the U.S.

If you’re not in the mood for all this misery you may not want to go near Frozen River, but be advised that it’s also a tough little thriller that drew effusive praise from Quentin Tarantino when he awarded it the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. That honor has been the commercial kiss of death for the past few years—Primer (2004), Forty Shades of Blue (2005), Quinceanera (2006), and Sangre de Mi Sangre (2007) all claimed it, opened small, and stayed that way. But Frozen River may have enough pure suspense to break that jinx, which is strange when you consider how little money is actually at stake in the movie: Hunt really manages to inflate the value of a dollar, making you feel every nickel and dime. Ray’s predicament may come to seem even more alarming as more of us see cracks in the ice.v

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