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Frozen River

dir: Courtney Hunt
[img_assist|nid=157|title=Oh, the woe and suffering of the noble underclass!|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=300|height=300]
It’s funny when I tell you that this flick deals with illegal immigrants, white trash, Mohawks, people smuggling and desperation, and you immediately think it must be set somewhere on the US-Mexican border and star Tommy Lee Jones.

Funny in the sense that it’s odd, not funny as in hilarious.

It’s funny in the sense that of course this flick is instead set on the border with Canada, and instead of the main character being a noble immigrant sorrowfully leaving behind their dirt farming existence in order to come to the States to enjoy its bounty in the form of hamburgers and novelty toilet seats, it’s about one of the people smugglers.

In no sense does the story bother with the refugees as characters. Its focus is entirely on a white trash woman living in a trailer home with her two kids, who kind of falls into people smuggling as the only way to look after her kids after being abandoned again by her worthless Mohawk husband.

The setting as well might be unusual for many viewers, seeing as it’s a place I’ve rarely seen (which doesn’t necessarily translate into being a place other viewers are unfamiliar with, I’ll grant you) on film. Upstate New York, in the town of Massena, seems to be a pretty economically depressed place with a strange relationship with the two disparate communities residing there. One set of laws seems to begin and end at the Land of the Mohawk sign, and another set of laws seems to govern and enshrine the poverty that Ray and her whitefolk people seem to subsist in.

Ray (Melissa Leo, who garnered an Oscar nomination for this role) has all the tattoos, the weathered, worn out look and cheap clothing one associates with the generic depiction of white trash (for lack of a more egalitarian collective term), and the air of a life filled with mistakes and regrets eternally surrounding her. As the film opens, she smokes and cries, having been abandoned by her no-hoper deadbeat gambling addict Mohawk husband (we never get to see even an image of him, though we continually see the impact of his absence) once again.

She doesn’t have the money to pay for the next instalment for the mobile home extension they seem to be delivering, so the giant truck delivering it has to haul it away again. She seems to have barely enough money for anything except eye-assaulting woolly jumpers and cigarettes.

On the way to trying to incompetently tow her husband’s abandoned car back to the trailer, she falls into a situation with a Mohawk woman living in what we here in Australia would call a caravan. A dingy one at that. This Mohawk woman, Lila (Misty Upham), is no noble savage sent to teach Ray the value of respecting the land or going on spirit journeys or how to find her animal guide. She’s a chubby, half-blind shlub who’s lost custody of her one-year-old son who is not liked even among the Mohawk because of her previous criminal activities.

The first time Ray smuggles some illegals (as Americans call refugees), it’s pretty much without completely realising it. But Christmas is coming up, and there aren’t any toys under the tree, and the repo guys are about to repossess the big screen plasma tv she hasn’t been making payments on. So what’s a white trash single mother who’s probably too old to strip or turn tricks supposed to do?

Ray’s relationship with her elder son Troy Junior (Charlie McDermott) is difficult, and not only because he’s played by a bad teenage actor. He blames his mother for his father abandoning them, which is not entirely unreasonable since he mentions, and she doesn’t deny, that she once shot him when he blew all their money on lottery tickets. He tries to get the family by with a bit of criminality himself, which is overall far more successful and productive than his mother’s endeavours.

The frozen river of the title refers to the river between the two mighty North American nations that allows Ray to sneak between borders with illegals in her boot (trunk, Americans would call it), less likely to be stopped by patrols because, as Lila puts it, she’s a white woman.

Up to this point, and I’m referring to a point about 40 minutes into the film, I can accept the world being portrayed, and can applaud Melissa Leo for the quality of her acting, which is believable throughout. Then the film falls apart for me; falls apart like one of the cheap, toxic toys the illegal immigrants in someone’s trunk would be constructing for a few cents an hour in their countries of origin before trying to jump the border to get into the Land of Plenty.

This is a major plot point which I can’t discuss without spoiling in its entirety, so readers should consider themselves forewarned and thus forearmed. It’s a complete gamechanger so, you know, you’ve been told.

Ray is revealed to have been not only a dude, but has also been a ghost from the beginning of the story!

No, wrong movie.

Ray and Lila, on a dark and stormy night, smuggle a Pakistani couple clutching a bag. For unclear and deeply stupid reasons, Ray decides, halfway across the St Lawrence River, that the bag which she previously searched, might contain a bomb, because she doesn’t like the look of these immigrants. She tosses the bag and drives on.

When the ungrateful illegals are dumped at the usual place, they seem to be overly concerned about the absence of their bag. Especially since they seem to have put their baby in that bag for safe keeping and ease of carrying.

It’s something like 40 degrees below zero out on that river, but Ray and Lila go back all the same, to find the baby.

From here the film falls apart for me. The horror of what might have happened due to (and I wish there was some other word for it) Ray’s stupidity (as opposed to what actually happens, since it is somewhat undone afterwards) taints everything she does thereafter, for me. And her lack of giving a damn about the magnitude of how serious the situation was sank the character and the drama afterwards. I couldn’t see her any longer as a struggling working class mother courageously making ends meet by participating in a virtually victimless crime: she is ultimately no more noble than any other criminal who knowingly breaks the law for profit, rather than principle or any other wonderful reason.

Even worse than that, my issue with the whole structure of that part of the plot is that it’s all so contrived. It’s dependent on so many idiocies on the part of so many people that it doesn’t ring true, even as I’m sure it probably occurs in real life and probably happens daily, with dire results.

The mechanics of the child being in the bag in the first place, for the parents to willingly give up control of the bag, for Ray to spontaneously decide even after searching the bag, halfway across the river that the bag might contain a bomb, to abandon the bag, to then go back for the bag once the parents can now actually communicate in English to ask her where the baby is, to the child being dead and then alive, just never felt like an organic part of the plot. It seemed like some ungainly trick whipped out to give the flick significance. To make it weighty.

To me, even to accept the motivations behind putting that section together, it just smacked of Screenwriting 101, and it ultimately undercut the noble intentions of the drama. And Ray’s indifference certainly doesn’t help. If anything, it made me hate her.

A person or character who steals, robs or sells drugs in order to support a drug habit versus a person or character who steals, robs or sells drugs in order to pay the credit company to whom monies are owed for a flat screen tv are little different, even with nuances taken into consideration. Ray gets greedy. Her redemption in the film’s final minutes doesn’t come, if it comes at all, from realising the error of her ways or the folly of giving in to greed: it comes from figuring out the way her family can profit the most whilst giving herself up for a crime she was doubtless going to be prosecuted for anyway.

It’s a very convenient out, with a script that screams three things to me: Sundance Film Festival, convenience and amateurish earnestness. It’s so fucking earnest (in a misplaced way) but hackneyed that I really wonder how and why the critics went so completely overboard for this flick last year. The handheld camerawork recalls a relative videotaping a family get-together, and the editing and most of the performances rank up there with your uncles and aunties hamming it up at the children’s birthday which constitutes the aforementioned get-together.

The aforementioned baby-and-the-freezing-bathwater moment isn’t even the worst part of the film. A subsequent scene where mother and son fight, and the son points the blowtorch at his mother, which he nearly burned the trailer down with, but has to hold on to because it was his father’s, is even worse. Painfully, awfully contrived, and badly acted to boot. It’s supposed to set up: reconciliation between mother and son, and additional motivation for her to get more money, but it’s very clumsy. Beyond clumsy. Amateurishly embarrassing, is what I’d call it.

I did not like this film, though there were some elements to admire in it. The depiction of the Mohawks and their tribal law is interesting, unsentimental and thankfully lacking in quirk or affectation. The cold, cold locations are beautiful but non-postcard, foreboding in what they represent. The poverty of Ray and her brood seems lived-in and believable, as opposed to angling for sympathy or disgust. The authorities are not jackbooted Nazis, just guys doing their jobs. And Melissa Leo, generally, is captivating. She is an actress I’ve long admired, and enjoyed watching in everything she’s ever been in, and she is as wonderful here as she can be, or at least as far as the plot allows her to be.

Still, the film’s patina of self-importance and worthiness, and its misguided story ultimately fail, as far as I’m concerned. It makes for a pretty downbeat and depressing experience as well, but it is lacking in any redeeming artistic, aesthetic or any other elements to really justify the time spent with its characters. As much as I wanted to like it, after the bit with the Pakistani baby, it lost whatever sympathy I could have mustered for it, which it never earned back. All the flat performances in the world masquerading as social realism or social commentary don’t mean shit with a weak and misguided script.

4 times I regret to inform you that your noble social realism is bullshit out of 10

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“It wasn’t me, it must have been the Creator” – people are always trying to put the blame on someone else, Frozen River.

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