Frozen River

Movies Reviews Courtney Hunt
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Frozen River

Release Date: August 1

Director: Courtney Hunt

Writer: Courtney Hunt

Cinematographer: Reed Morano

Starring: Melissa Leo, Misty Upham, Michael O’Keefe, Mark Boone Junior

Studio/Run Time: Sony Pictures Classics, 97 mins.

Aptly named drama Frozen River has a lovely metaphor running up its chilly spine. A woman named Ray in upstate New York needs a new trailer for her family but is having a hard time coming up with the down payment. Her absent husband is no help. She lives near a Mohawk reservation on the U.S.-Canadian border, where jurisdictions abut and immigration happens on the sly, and she soon finds herself moonlighting for a local smuggler named Lila. Give someone a ride across the border, make a little extra money. Sounds simple enough. The only problem is that the ice they drive across, the frozen St. Lawrence River, is one day bound to crack.

Writer-director Courtney Hunt sets up Frozen River’s central conflicts fairly early: the bills that need to be paid, the family that needs a better home, the opportunities at the edge of the law. And once they’re in place, it’s just a matter of time before it all falls apart. A few contrivances seem to exist mainly to make the plot twisty and poignant, and much of the dialogue simply reinforces the obvious, but the two lead actors—Misty Upham as Lila and Melissa Leo as the mother caught in her web—are strong. They’re playing characters with histories and motives, and Hunt might have made a more organic and insightful film if she’d used the story’s dangers as the silent underpinnings for the relationship. Instead, those elements swell into the foreground and take symbolic shapes that ring false at every turn. One woman gets eyeglasses so she can really see while another deals with a baby left on the surface of the frozen river.

A metaphor that’s as quiet as the falling snow is sublime; a metaphor that grows tentacles and screeches like a buzzard is maddening.