I have seen Ice Road Truckers, and this is no Ice Road Truckers!
Written By: Courtney Hunt
Directed By: Courtney Hunt
Frozen River begins with a long shot of a barren, desolate land. It is cold, uninviting, and ominous. Thus goes the tone for the rest of Frozen River. Even in the most intimate of scenes Frozen River asks the viewer if they really want to be let in, do they really want to continue down the path of Ray or Lila? Of course the viewer will say yes, but they say this with a great deal of trepidation, we all know where the story is going, it’s just a question of how it will get there, and how much Ray and Lila will have to suffer along the way. Frozen River never wants to let you in, it uses the cold landscape and frozen terrain as a buffer between you and the insides of the movie. Frozen River dares you to cross that terrain to deal with the elements, if you can do that then maybe you are ready for the innards of the picture.
Much like another movie I just reviewed, Wendy and Lucy, Frozen River offers a glimpse into fringe society. It does this through the usual economic hardship means, but it throws a twist into the mix both with the humanistic suspense aspect, and with the inclusion of Native American land and culture, oft ignored in popular media. Undoubtedly the travails of the Eddy family are hard, money is scarce, the father is a missing deadbeat, and the children are well, children, both precocious and hopeful. Frozen River decides very early on to take a very clean and easy approach to its story. There isn’t an ounce of extravagance to the story, every element is presented in a quiet, almost banal, fashion. This approach to the tone of the film and to the sensibilities of the viewer allows the ideas of economic hardship, generations of racism, crime, etc. to sink into the viewer’s consciousness in a very languid fashion. This approach also allows for the unique idea of suspense through a humanistic lens to shine and enrapture the viewer with its tension filled car drives across the barren river that threatens not just to freeze our characters bodies but their very humanity.
Very early on in Frozen River I began to think of another movie set in an icy terrain, Fargo. The two movies are very different from one another, but in the use of cold and climate as an extension and medium for the story they are one and the same. Of all the strengths of Frozen River I was most drawn to its atmosphere and how Courtney Hunt in sage like fashion used the climate of the New York area to impose the desolation of the people she was filming. More than anything else in the film the lingering shots of the perpetually frozen river, or the police officer leaving breath trails as he explains to Ray about her parking light, to the image of a burnt out house caused by frozen pipes evoke in the viewer a sense of starkness and let you know what the movie is all about.
There were a few scenes where I thought Frozen River went too far in its message of good people doing bad things, but still being good people. The scene at the end with T.J. and the old Indian woman he conned especially seems tacked on and far too blunt in comparison with the rest of the picture. There were also a few moments where I felt that Miss Hunt focused too much on the common nature of Ray’s life. The moment she goes back to Lila for more smuggling we know that her life isn’t normal anymore and that meant there isn’t the need for a series of reminders that “hey, she may be doing something fantastic now, but look at how normal the rest of her life still is.” But, that was balanced out by the look at the Mohawk people. Even the tiniest glimpse into their culture, how they operate on their own land with each other, and how they interact with the white people was interesting. As I said earlier, Native American culture, especially modern, is largely ignored in cinema, but Frozen River gave us some insight into their world.
Frozen River is an indie darling of 2008, and with good reason. It is everything that people look for in a good indie movie. Engaging characters, and a deft plot, but what sets Frozen River apart from the rest of the pack is its tremendous visual style. I can’t think of any other independent film that I have seen in recent years that had quite the scope in look and cinematography that Frozen River did. As a fellow Chicago native has pointed out about other movies, because of its reliance on atmosphere, tone, and ambiance Frozen River isn’t just a movie you need to see, it’s an experience you need to go through.