Frozen River
Masterful, Thoughtful Filmmaking

Frozen River is one of the best movies in recent years to address the issue of situational ethics, or morality-by-circumstance. However, writer and director Courtney Hunt has included a strange twist on that theme that many critics are missing.

Melissa Leo plays Ray Eddya woman beaten down by lifeto perfection. The mother of two boys, one a teenager and one a young elementary student, she is also the wife of a gambling addict whom we never meet, a cad who regularly takes whatever money the family has managed to save and disappears to Atlantic City for a binge. Ray has worked at a dollar store for over two years with the carrot of management constantly dangled but never given. The Eddys live in extreme northern New York State, close to a Mohawk Indian reservation which is across a river from Quebec, Canada… and known for illegal-alien smuggling.

Melissa Leo as Ray in Frozen RiverAs the first frames of the movie appear, Ray is seen sitting in the front seat of her car in her bathrobe after discovering that the $4,000 she had stashed in the glove box is gonealong with her husband. Ray’s dream and dominating goal in life is to own a new double-wide trailer with four bedrooms and spa tub in the bath that will replace the single-wide in which the family currently lives, and which by all rights should be condemned. She has attempted to have the first half of the new home delivered before, and now, since the money is gone again, will once more be unable to take delivery.

The remainder of the movie details the extremes to which Ray will go to fulfill this dream for her familyand without spoiling the plot for future viewers too much below, I will only say that it does involve breaking the law.

The setup sounds like a decent justification for Ray’s choices in the next hour or so; but here is the rub: Courtney Hunt takes the obvious protagonist and flips the empathy and sympathy from her main character to the supporting character, Lila, who becomes Ray’s partner in crime.

Lila (ably brought to life by Misty Upham) is a young Mohawk Indian widow, living in complete destitution on the reservation in a battered travel trailer. She has been shunned by her tribe because it blames her for her husband’s deathand her mother-in-law has stolen her baby son from her because she knows Lila is an unfit mother. While on the reservation, tribal law rules over all, and Lila is biding her time, running illegals across the lake in order to save enough money to reclaim her son and leave the reservation for a new life somewhere else.

Finding herself without a car that has an interior trunk release, and shut out everywhere from purchasing one locally, she steals Ray’s carwhich was abandoned by Ray’s husband at the Mohawk Bingo hall on his way out of town. Long story short… Ray and Lila form an alliance running illegals that quickly builds up both of their bankrolls, moving them both closer to their goals. The injustices in Lila’s life are much more engaging reasons to be tempted to forgive her breaking of the law, a justification for situational ethics.

Every review of this movie that I have encountered so far has the critic defending Ray Eddy as a woman driven to extremes to feed her family. However, while the children are eating a pretty steady diet of popcorn and Tang, it isn’t because Ray doesn’t have any money. Ray is so fixated on the double-wide trailer that she has chosen to make that the priority in her life and really is asking her children to suffer for the sake of her goal also. This works well for little Ricky, but doesn’t resonate well with the teen, T. J., who wants to do what he can to help the family survive in light of his dawning awareness of his father’s shortcomings and lack of dependability. A mother that is truly concerned about putting food in her children’s mouths doesn’t watch them eat popcorn for breakfast while $4,000 is sitting outside in the carand while she is still chain-smoking cigarettes. The case for situational ethics, in Ray’s situation, just doesn’t ring true. It’s hard to feel sorry for anyone but the children.

In any event, Courtney Hunt does not allow her main character to “get away” with breaking the lawand I feel that it is because she recognizes that Ray isn’t honest in her motivation for making the money. While it is difficult to accept Ray as a heroine, Hunt does allow some redemption for Ray in the end. Hunt even divides her story well, leaving an edge of dissatisfaction since Ray’s and Lila’s fates differ—masterful!

Just a word or two about Hunt’s direction. The setting of Frozen River is a character in itself that mirrors the bleakness of both Ray’s and Lila’s lives. The cold, sere scenes of icy windswept frozen water and landscapes echo the ravages of the two women’s disappointing lives. The harshness of the winter is etched in every line of Ray’s face, and her attitude about life (and her demeanor) ape the iciness of the winter. Ray only smiles once in the entire movie, and that is when Ricky wakes her up on the morning the half of the house is about to be delivered… before life gets even more complicated and falls apart.

Frozen River is rated R for “some language.” I really can’t understand the thinking on that. I did not find the language excessive or irritating enough to warrant an R. (Maybe they were thinking of Tropic Thunder?) However, since this is not a movie that will interest children or teens, the R will help adults make the decision on whether to take their kids.

Courtesy of a local publicist, Kathy attended a promotional screening of Frozen River.