Frozen River is not the kind of American movie you see in the movie theater, and Melissa Leo is not the kind of actress that Hollywood pulls off the assembly line. Frozen River is an unflinching brutal portrait of the desperation and struggles of the lower class in America, and Melissa Leo pulls out all the stops to show that brutality for every wrinkle, stain, cigarette, nickel and dime that encompasses it. Unlike the movies of David Gordon Green which attempt to touch upon the American white underclass but always leave everything with a tinge of music video fetishism, Frozen River allows no room for the stamp of MTV prettiness or indie pop culture fetishism of the working class. Nothing about the characters in this movie is hip and cool. Nothing about them will sell blue jeans or pop music. This is a brutally real portrait of the struggles of those who are invisible living under the hammer of capitalism and its economic cannibalism in America, and I suggest you get out there and see it.
The premise of the story is simple. Ray Eddy, played by the uncompromising and magnificent Melissa Leo, is in financial straights. Her gambling husband left her and her kids right before Christmas, and he took the down payment for Ray’s double wide trailer with him. Ray is going to lose her dream home if she can’t come up with the money, but coming up with the money is hard because the only employment that Ray has been able to procure for herself is a part-time job at a dollar store. Sound familiar? Ray meets up with a young Mohawk woman, and the two of them engage in smuggling illegal aliens across the Canadian border to earn some cash. They do this by shoving their human cargo in the trunk of Ray’s car and driving across the frozen river between Canada and upstate New York. The movie is ripe with tension and dread as the two women engage in their illegal operation. In this skeletal story so much is encompassed about the disenfranchised in America – from the Native Americans who have been relegated to reservations, to the invisible white underclass, to the illegal immigrants being subjected to horrible things to try to cross our ever closing borders. All of this story unfolds with the one mission driving the film – Ray’s desperate attempt to not lose the trailer of her dreams for her and her two sons.
The movie opens with a close-up of Melissa Leo’s unapologetic brutalized face. Every wrinkle, sag, scar and tobacco stain comes into full focus. No plastic surgery in this face, just the truth of what a woman like Ray Eddy looks like. A woman who has lived hard and worked hard. A woman whose life is reduced to a series of basic necessities (lunch money, mittens, a trailer) and how to scrape them off an empty plate. But filmmaker Courtney Hunt makes no martyr or saint out of Ray Eddy. She presents her with a forensic eye for truth without melodramatic embellishment. Sure, there is some melodrama, like when Ray’s racism inspires her to throw a Pakastani couple’s duffle bag out the door and onto the ice in the middle of a freezing night because it probably has bombs or weapons in it. We find out when they get to the New York motel that the couple’s baby is in the bag. The subsequent series of events could play out as over the top melodrama, but Melissa Leo’s performance is so brutally honest in its inbred racism and survivalism that any chance for emotional excess is denied us, and we just swallow the hardness of the picture as it goes down rough.
This narrowly focused story brings up so many issues brewing in the underbelly of America — race, class, borders, consumerism – and it’s all lurking inside the expanse of frozen river. As the women cross back and forth, their entire environment is one of menace. The menacing legacy of genocide and hatred permeates the soil of the Indian reservations the women drive on. The lurking menace of the American law is stationed in his cruiser just inside the border. The manufacturing of fear, xenophobia, and desperation is frozen into Ray’s very being and the river she navigates. The actual physical body of the frozen river itself is a menace which could swallow the women at any moment. As the two women cross the expanse of ice, they are trying to navigate their way out of the frozen landscape of class, race and borders that bind them. And then there is the all penetrating threat of everyday existence – the fear of losing your job, your home, your family. Hardcore tension and desperation seeps from every pour of Melissa Leo’s body as her entire world threatens to explode at any minute. Her jaw is set in a permanent state of preparing for the next blow, and ours are set with her as even the smallest things take on the biggest significance of Ray’s desperate condition – Ray digging coins out of sofa cushions to feed her kids lunch; a dog who hates whites snapping at her car window; her son catching the trailer on fire while trying to unfreeze the pipes in winter. Everything can come down at any minute.
This great land of opportunity hasn’t dished out many opportunities for Ray, and her only recourse is to smuggle immigrants barely worse off than her. The immigrants she smuggles are just one degree of separation from her own state of oppression. While the immigrants are indentured to those who paid to bring them into America, Ray is indentured to the entire system of capitalism that keeps her yoked to the desire to live the American dream even though its far beyond her reach. All she wants is to provide the ideal new home for her family (the double wide trailer), but the very systems that promote that dream refuse to give her the economic opportunities to make it come true.
There is no attempt to make anything pretty or beautiful in this movie because this is not a pretty story. Every little detail is as real as a Polaroid snapshot – the stained bathtub, the dusty jars of dime store bubble bath on the shelf, the tawdry aisles of the dollar store, the huge television from Rent-To-Own that is going to be repossessed any day. The very fact that the TV is from Rent-To-Own underlies the economic cannibalism in this country. Rent-To-Own is a notoriously exploitive franchise that preys on the working poor by allowing them to pretend they have more than they do. They gouge the underclass by charging astronomical rates to rent things like large screen televisions, fostering the illusion of achieving the American Dream, even though there is never a chance in hell that the renters will actually be able to “own” the products. It is economic cannibalism at its worst. And Ray is beholden to its hungry maw.
Frozen River is also a women’s movie. It shows the hardcore struggles of two mothers facing the impossibility of their class and position. It is a movie of big women who rise from the land of the invisible. You just don’t see women in the movies performing at the level of Melissa Leo’s gritty, unapologetic performance. Actresses don’t forfeit their stardom for reality, and as such their characters and the movies they occupy all have a veneer of artificiality no matter how hard movies strive for an honest realism. There is nothing artificial about Melissa Leo’s performance. Her character is so solid, so utterly believable that she sunk into my gut like a human tumor from the opening scene until the end of the movie. She forces us into her skin and makes us see things through her eyes, and it is a tough hard view. It was so real I could taste it. The other female force behind this movie is director and screenwriter Courtney Hunt. It is so refreshing to see such a powerful movie put out by a woman. It’s not witty postmodern gimmickry. It is sharp, forceful cinema of relentless realism that we rarely see in movies anymore. And it is a portrait of struggling women — Ray and Lila – the likes of which we’ll never see the Meg Ryans and Julia Roberts of the world playing. It would be great to see Frozen River double billed with Sofia Coppola’s sorority art house masturbation Marie Antoinette to compare the kind of cinematic food being dished out by women. I’ll freeze on Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River any day of the week rather than dry swallow Coppola’s sugar coated designer bag of celluloid bourgeois fashion. If this movie is playing in your town, please go see it. Give Melissa Leo and Courtney Hunt the honor of your presence, and allow yourself to see what film is capable of achieving.
KIM NICOLINI is an artist, poet and cultural critic. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her partner, daughter, and a menagerie of beasts. She works a day job to support her art and culture habits. She is currently finishing a book-length essayistic memoir about being a teenage runaway in 1970s San Francisco. Her work has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Bullhorn and Berkeley Review. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.