• Post category:Movies
  • Post last modified:January 1, 2019

Frozen River: Working the Border


In 2008, there were two prominent films about illegal immigration, a subject that is far too often hijacked by individuals on the fringe right. Illegal immigrants tend to be viewed as either terrorists or slouches looking to take advantage of American social systems, when in fact most of them are desperately trying to find a future in one of the wealthiest nations on earth.

The Visitor had the greatest effect on me, but Frozen River is also worthy of recognition. A hit at Sundance, the movie garnered two Oscar nominations, for the script and Melissa Leo’s performance.

In upstate New York, near the Canadian border and a Mohawk reservation, Ray Eddy (Leo) tries to cope with the stark realities of her life. Ray’s husband, a gambling addict, recently bolted with their life savings, leaving behind not just his wife but also their two sons, 15-year-old T.J. (Charlie McDermott) and the much younger Ricky (James Reilly). They had been saving the money for a house, a significantly better option than their current trailer. T.J. wants to quit school and find a job in order to support the family, but Ray won’t hear of it. One day, her husband’s car is stolen and Ray follows the thief only to learn that she’s a Mohawk bingo-parlor employee, Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham), who needs a car for the illegal-immigrant trafficking operation that she’s part of. Ray needs money badly and agrees to help Lila smuggle immigrants from Canada across the frozen St. Lawrence River…

Lack of Hollywood polish
This was director Courtney Hunt’s feature film debut, but the story was actually portrayed in a short film that Hunt made in 2003. Everything about Frozen River screams indie production. There’s a roughness to the project, a lack of Hollywood polish that mostly serves the film very well, but sometimes reveals the filmmakers’ inexperience, especially in tense scenes that involve a certain amount of action. The movie has an open ending; this is not a story that takes us from A to B and then reaches a definitive conclusion. The audience is merely a visitor in these people’s lives and the story began before we started watching and will go on after the end credits.

The locations are one-hundred percent genuine and portray very grim, wintry places; this is where poverty exists in America and forces people to do whatever is necessary to survive. Smuggling illegal immigrants across a border is not really viewed as a crime; it may have repercussions later, but the act itself is simple and even humanitarian, as we see in a sequence of events that is key to the story and involve the loss of a baby. People who fanatically oppose comprehensive immigration reform need enlightenment in shape of this film, but they’re not likely to be susceptible.

Another sign of the movie’s indie roots is the cast. Melissa Leo may not have been a nobody (after all, she was on Homicide: Life on the Streets), but she wasn’t very famous prior to this film. However, her subsequent career is a testament to the power of independent cinema. Leo is now an Oscar-winning star and the entire cast of Frozen River deserves recognition, especially Upham as Ray’s stone-faced partner in crime.

Frozen River ¬†2008-U.S. 96 min. Color. Produced by¬†Chip Hourihan, Heather Rae. Written and directed by¬†Courtney Hunt. Cast: Melissa Leo (Ray Eddy), Misty Upham (Lila Littlewolf), Michael O’Keefe (Finnerty), Charlie McDermott, Mark Boone Junior, James Reilly.

Trivia: McDermott and Reilly are actually cousins.

Last word: “I wrote the first draft based on cigarette smuggling and wasn‚Äôt happy with the way it came out. Then 9/11 happened, I had a baby, I moved upstate, and one day I was writing in my journal and this whole monologue of Ray‚Äôs (the Melissa Leo character) just poured out. I thought it was a poem. And so I took that and it became the short film. Once I saw the short film got into the NY Film Festival and it got attention I went back and said let‚Äôs just show the whole thing.” (Hunt, Huffington Post)



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