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Frozen River

How often, outside Christmas, do happy film scenarios play out in snowbound landscapes? I can’t think of any. In the same way that rain-lashed darkness can mean very few things (most of them exceedingly grim) in cinema, wintry outposts tend to suggest that all is not well, or soon won’t be. Frozen River (set at Christmas) is no different, though a certain amount of hope lingers in such icy isolation once disaster has inevitably held sway.

Melissa Leo is an abandoned mother of two living in a trailer in the back of beyond; her husband having recently legged it with their remaining money. She has one obvious ambition: a double-wide trailer for her and the kids. We see it driven back to whence it came early on – disappearing husband having filched the funds – and as Christmas looms, nerves are frayed and fuses are short. Shortly thereafter, she spots hubby’s car and follows it. The driver is not he; rather, a young Mohawk woman. After an argument, the woman tells Leo she can get her a good price for the car. Upshot of their drive (across the titular frozen river) to the prospective buyer being that she ends up with two illegal immigrants in her boot and, soon enough, with a gun to her head and a request that she get out of her husband’s car. Scuffle later, Leo has a cut but retains the car. This was Bad Newsville to start with but quickly descends into an ever-complex nightmare, and the film seems over-busy, over-fraught with incipient disaster.

Back at home, eldest son wants to go out and earn but Leo refuses, and once she has her request for a full-time shift at work knocked back, she’s back with the Mohawk girl; she’ll have that double-wide trailer, even if it means shunting a few illegals in the back of her car: her life has hit bottom and potential jail-sentences are nothing to quell her at this point.

A strange but compelling alliance ensues thereon, and we know we’re going to hit ‘one job too far’ denouement country by the 90th minute, but the film works on its own, stripped-down, bleakly effective premise. Some of the acting is wooden and faltering, but you’re too worried about Leo’s plight by midway for it to stall the film. The performances of her two kids, on the other hand, are totally convincing and even touching.

Leo is excellent: worn, bristling and desperate but resolute and admirably tenacious, without ever resorting to histrionics or soap-operatics. She commands respect and gets it as a stoic hero with a well-earned cragginess and well-meant irascibility. And she slips the attentions of the local police officer, who looks like he might be amorously keen, until near-disaster precedes genuine disaster and a double-edged but hopeful close.

Frozen River will win no prizes for exquisite production values or great ensemble performances, but as a taut, affecting suspense film, set perfectly within an edge-of-the-world snowscape, it more than succeeds.

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Mary
    February 16, 2010 at 11:04 am

    Saw this in deepest Brittany – you’d be surprised what we get at Morlaix cinema. Like you was very impressed by some of the performances and interesting themes and I loved the snowy wastes. Bit of a cop out finding that baby in the bag (but I was pleased they did) – too much realism can be depressing.

    • February 16, 2010 at 11:52 am

      Morning Mary, glad you left a comment, my first! So thanks. Anyway, I guess the snow and harsh climes were a refreshing antidote to doubtless beautiful weather in Brittany? I’ve been there a couple of times and loved it, but I digress…
      I hope the film gets a decent audience; I’m glad Tarantino put his name on the cover as it should at least encourage a few more to have a look. It’s probably destined for ‘lost classic’ fate, to be found in the televisual equivalent of the back of the couch, 2.30am on Channel Random. Maybe that’s fitting in an obscure way, but at least Melissa Leo got an Oscar Nomination, thoroughly deserved. You only wish there were more decent parts for her floating around, but she’ll inevitably have to play drunken grandma or backwoods oddball casting forth grizzly aphorisms from the porch as her chair squeaks and the door’s slammed shut by loaded hubby. You know what I mean, I hope!

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