Frozen River (Courtney Hunt, 2008): USA

Reviewed by Richard Feilden.  Viewed at the LA International Film Festival

Well, I’ve written about the best of the festival (in my opinion) and now I fear I must turn to the worst. This isn’t out of some perverse pleasure I might take from wielding my pen (which is far from being mightier than any sword) against a hapless victim, but as a warning to you. Avoid Frozen River as it, I’m sure, wings its way towards a Lifetime channel near you.

Ray (Melissa Leo) is a mother struggling to keep her sons fed and housed as Christmas races towards them as fast as her gambling addict husband races away with the deposit for their new trailer. When she finds her abandoned car has been claimed by Native American woman Lila (Misty Upham), the two form an unlikely relationship at opposite ends of a gun. From this unlikely and incongruous start, they bond as they smuggle illegal immigrants across the border from Canada into New York, using the Mohawk reservation as a cover from the State Troopers.

This film begins with much in its favor. It is female dominated movie, from a female writer/director in a world when that is unfortunately rare. It offers an uncommon opportunity for a Native American woman to take a lead role. It gives us a point to start a discussion of the plight of the poor in America, as well as those so desperate that they offer up years of servitude in order to be smuggled onto its no-longer-welcoming shores. But, for the purposes of this review, none of this matters to me. I could care less. All I am interested in is the final product, and with that there are problems.

In the Q&A after the screening that I attended, the audience congratulated the director on producing a film so lacking in sentimentality. Perhaps my callous nature has left me more sensitive to it than the vocal part of the audience, but I saw nothing but. The film exists in a world without consequences, or consequences so trivial as to be, for all intents and purposes, irrelevant. Ray’s children are forced to exist on a diet of popcorn and soda, but their health is none the worse for it. Crimes are committed, but where punishment might be meted out, it borders on the ridiculous. No one really suffers, at least on screen, and that is something I’ll come to in a moment. In this world there is no need to hold your breath or flinch when a gun is drawn, nor worry as another group of immigrants is driven across the titular expanse of treacherous ice, because there is nothing to fear, and so you cease to care.

I spoke of unseen suffering and this is where the film really lets itself down. The plight of those who fund Ray and Lila’s little enterprise is given no more than a cursory mention, a throw away line quickly forgotten as we return to the task of getting the required presents under the Christmas tree. Whatever these two women do, we are told, is to be celebrated as it is for their children, their families. As they stuff two young Chinese women into the trunk of their car, we should not worry ourselves with the fate that awaits the immigrant women, for after all what is a few years of indentured labor or even forced prostitution when compared to getting that double-wide and the look on your son’s face when he sees that Santa has brought him his Hot-Wheels.

In the films defense, the Leo is stunning in the lead.  She is as rough and gritty as the arctic wasteland that her character inhabits and is not afraid to be shown at her very worst, deliberately burying her attractiveness and providing a very believable character.  If the rest of the film had been up to her high standard then my review would have been very, very different.  Sadly it does not come close.

When the BBC’s Mark Kermode reviewed Rambo, he admonished the creators for producing a film which was morally bankrupt. Here we have that, combined with dull, safe predictability and a sugar frosted world hidden only by the thinnest crust of dark, which on closer inspection proves to be no more than chocolate sprinkles. Avoid.

Addendum – since I wrote this review I’ve noticed that this film will not only be released in theaters on August 1st, but was the recipient of the Sundance Grand Jury Prize. The world never ceases to amaze me.

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