October 20, 2008

Passion Burns in Frozen River

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Courtney Hunt, in her directorial debut, has made a film that’s daring in its ambitions yet reserved in its tone — a movie that is simultaneously beautiful and tragic. Winner of the Grand Jury Price at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, Frozen River tells the story, subtly, of Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo), a single mother of two, and Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham), a Mohawk woman, who smuggle illegal immigrants across the U.S. / Canadian border on a frozen river to upstate New York in the trunk of a car. And that basic plot description is also the best compliment I can give to this movie. It doesn’t rely on cheap thrills, or contrived suspense, or fancy camerawork, or grandiose messages. It merely tells a story — perfectly.
When we first meet Ray we find out her husband, a gambling addict who the audience never sees, ditched the family. This means that she must both pay the bills and raise her two sons, 15-year-old TJ and five-year-old Ricky. Most of the people in her town are poor, but Ray is in a whole other realm of poverty. She works part time at the Yankee Dollar, a job that allows her to serve popcorn and Tang for dinner. On the other hand, Lila, while not exactly wealthy, has some money stored away. But her situation is worse than Ray’s in other ways; her husband is dead and her mother-in-law has “stolen” her infant son from her.
The two women meet by sheer accident: Lila stumbles upon Ray’s husband’s abandoned car and takes it, and when Ray goes looking for her husband she comes across the car, and thus, Lila. Ray’s progression to smuggling, like the women’s meeting, also happens out of pure circumstance. She finds herself on her first trip without knowing how she got there. But then she feels the cash in her hand and realizes she can finally afford to go grocery shopping.
At first the two women work together tentatively, only enduring the other’s presence because it’s mutually beneficial to do so. Ray has the car and Lila has the contacts. But soon their relationship changes. They grow to understand each other because both of their lives are similar. Notice Director Hunt’s restraint during some of their more emotional scenes. She seems to know when to sit back and merely capture the actresses portraying their characters with the utmost sensitivity.
The fact that their lives become better as a result of this chance encounter is testament to the sheer helplessness of their lives. Blind luck — like the bingo game that Lila supervises at her reservation — brings them more than individual free will does. Plus, every time they cross the lake with aliens in the trunk, they pass a trooper parked on the side of the road. It’s like playing bingo. Sooner or later their number will be called, right?
What’s so admirable about Courtney Hunt, other than her restraint in key scenes, is that she trusts the artistic integrity of the natural world in communicating a message. Consider the opening sequence, a series of establishing shots depicting the bleak land that the characters call home. Hunt first shows us the frozen river itself, lets us ponder it for a moment, then moves on. After a few more shots of the town it becomes clear that this is a world so lifeless, so inert. We know about the characters before even seeing them. Hunt lays out the reality of these characters’ situations and lets the world around them do the talking. And yet the dialogue is dead-on: terse, realistic, and to the point. Any other way would be at odds with the bleak surroundings Plus, Hunt relies less on what the characters are saying and more on how or why they’re saying it. Body language, for example, is often all we need to get a crucial piece of information.
It’s refreshing to encounter a director who is not only perceptive enough to realize where the film’s true power lies — the relationship between the women and the scenery surrounding them — but is also humble enough to know when to sit back and let that story speak for itself. Besides being an effective yet subtle way of telling a story, this also shows that Hunt has confidence in the viewer’s intelligence. I never felt like Hunt was diluting a scene to make it more easily understood. Instead, I felt like all this was happening on its own and Hunt happened to be there to capture it. And given the film’s significant theme of chance, this isn’t at all surprising.