Every year there is always one surprise nomination at the Oscars, it could be said that Frozen River ticked that box on the 2008 shortlist. Written and directed by unknown Courtney Hunt, the film received the nomination for Best Screenplay, and Melissa Leo was also touted as “Best Actress” for her portrayal of struggling mother Ray Eddy. Having received numerous awards yet minimal theatrical success, why did Frozen River disappear without a trace?
Frozen River is an intense thriller focusing on the collapsing world of Ray Eddy, consummately played by Leo. Ray’s gambling husband has disappeared just before Christmas, leaving Ray unable to pay for the family’s new trailer home. With two kids to feed on her low-salary from the local Dollar store, Ray is in despair. While searching for her husband, she discovers that Mohawk Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham) is in fact in possession of her missing husband’s car. A strange friendship develops, based around necessity as opposed to affection, with Ray getting caught in Lila’s trafficking. Lila is an old hand and knows that she is safe on her Mohawk reserve, being able to cross the US-Canada border at the point her New York State reserves meets Canada over a frozen river.
An intense thriller
Back home, Ray’s youngest son Ricky (James Reilly) is dreaming of his new home and a car set for Christmas. Determined to help out, her 15 year old son T.J. (Charlie McDermott) is determined to leave school to help his Mum out, against her will. Turning to petty crime instead, Ray’s world is truely spinning out of control. When the dollar shop is unable to help out with full-time work, Ray has little choice but persisting with gaining easy cash from her trafficking. Meanwhile, Lila is not without her own troubles. Having lost her husband, she has a son she wishes to look after. Taken from her, the poor-sighted girl can see no legal way through her issues. As the lure of large cash sums draws her in, everything spins predictably out of control.
Frozen River isn’t edge of the seat viewing, however it’s aim never appears to be. The action focuses on Ray and Lila, as we see the two women struggle to create a life for their loved ones. Their actions appear justified and the smuggling seems to be an means to an end. The real driving force of the piece are the compellingly honest performances by the film’s lead turns Melissa Leo and Misty Upham. Utterly convincing, the two bring heart to what could otherwise have been written off as just another thriller. By allowing sympathy with the two downtrodden women, Hunt cleverly draws viewers in to the drama with the tension coming out of genuine concern as opposed to sensation.