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Frozen River Print E-mail
Thursday, 12 February 2009
Melissa Leo probably won't win the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of a frazzled mother driven to extremes in 'Frozen River,' but that doesn't mean she doesn't deserve it.  On the contrary, Leo gets under her character's skin and files one of the year's most natural, least histrionic performances.  From her first revealing close-up, 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 that rare mix of the everyday and unfamiliar, a simple story of poverty and sacrifice that takes place in one of our country's hidden nooks and crannies.  Hunt, who wrote the screenplay as well as directed, takes issues and dynamics we never knew existed and thrusts them to the forefront, while telling a gripping story infused with emotion.  Her simple, straightforward style, coupled with the unaffected performances of a largely unknown cast, lends 'Frozen River' a realistic look and feel that separates it from more mainstream fare. In the remote, economically depressed border town of Massena, New York, white residents delicately coexist with Mohawk Indians.  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.  Unable to put food on the table (unless you consider popcorn and Tang a square meal) or make the balloon payment on her dream double-wide trailer home, Ray still tries 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 local dollar store refuses to increase her hours, the desperate mom goes outside the law to try and wrangle the cash to secure her double-wide and end her family's hand-to-mouth existence.  A chance meeting with Lila (Misty Upham), a bitter young Mohawk widow whose mother-in-law "stole" her newborn son a year ago, leads Ray into smuggling illegal aliens in the trunk of her car across the Canadian border into America via the frozen, unpatrolled St. Lawrence River.  The risky endeavor pays big dividends, but its 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 act out of necessity not greed, and don't apologize or feel remorse when things go awry.  Hunt, to her credit, keeps her characters in the moment and any judgment to herself.  No self-conscious camera angles or manipulative sentiment 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 tension and suspense keep viewers engaged, but again, Hunt allows such elements to develop and play out naturally, which heightens their effectiveness.

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, but still exhibits the gritty, muted look of independent filmmaking.  Though gray skies, ice, and snow cast a monochromatic pall over the film, tonal variation is completely natural and banding is never an issue.  When colors do grab focus, they're true and well balanced, much like the accurate fleshtones.  Close-ups fare best, and the heightened clarity adds layers to the characterizations.  Black levels shine, although digital noise is visible in low light, and fine details are often lost.

The 5.1 Dolby TrueHD track doesn't provide any sonic fireworks, but supplies serviceable sound with faint ambient accents.  Most activity is directed up front, with dialogue always clear and comprehendible.  The crunch of snow and hum of car engines are crisp and full bodied, and some natural atmospherics, such as breezes, gently envelop.  In quiet moments, the track can be quite detailed, and the music nicely enhances the mood without being obtrusive.

Considering its independent status, it's not surprising 'Frozen River' only includes a single extra (aside from trailers and a BD-Live link) – a sober, NPR-like commentary by Hunt and producer Heather Rae that's maddeningly light on substance.  The two praise Leo's performance, address the constraints of independent productions, and bitch about the frigid weather, but spend most of the time outlining the setup and challenges of each scene, and that becomes tiresome.  By no means a negligible track, this commentary could have had more depth, and it's regrettable Hunt and Rae didn't take better advantage of the forum.

'Frozen River' 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, it may not merit a blind buy, but this small, potent, and rewarding film deserves to be seen, and those who seek it out won't be disappointed.

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