Saturday, September 6, 2008

Frozen River (2008, Courtney Hunt)

Most of the great suspense movies are founded upon necessity. When a character finds himself in a tense situation, it’s because he has to be there, not just because he’s looking for a little thrill. It’s only when the stakes are high for the people onscreen that the suspense really takes hold. Consider Ray Eddy, the protagonist of Frozen River, played by Melissa Leo. There’s almost no wiggle room in Ray’s life- her husband’s disappeared with the money that was earmarked for the family’s new double-wide trailer, her creditors are sniffing around, there’s barely any money left in the coffers (at one point she feeds her children popcorn and Tang for dinner), and Christmas is just around the corner. So the sudden appearance of the young Mohawk woman Lila (Misty Upham) who ropes Ray into an illegal-alien transporting racket looks like just the opportunity she needs to pull herself out of the rut into which she’s fallen. Naturally, much of the suspense of Frozen River stems from whether Ray and Lila will get caught, but I dare say that the film wouldn’t work nearly as well if the various parties who were closing in on Ray’s life weren’t illustrated so vividly. It’s certainly true that trouble can come to us all, but many of these troubles can be staved off with money, and Ray just doesn’t have it. So even when the family’s faced with something as simple as a frozen water pipe, the results can be disastrous. And that’s the true center of Frozen River- that for all its effectiveness as suspense, it’s really a movie about how poverty can back a person into a corner. Especially in a small town like Ray’s, a poor single woman has almost no options open to her, so when trouble comes knocking, everything can spiral out of control. Leo’s performance is pivotal, not a deglammed Oscar-grubbing star turn but nothing short of an act of empathy, inhabiting Ray without soft-pedaling how difficult she can sometimes be, especially when cornered. With a less convincing lead performance, we wouldn’t buy Frozen River for a second. But Leo never steps wrong, and that’s why the movie works as well as it does. Rating: 7 out of 10.

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