The first few shots and most of the rest of “Frozen River” brought “Fargo” immediately to mind. Those shots evoke an empty, frozen wasteland. It seems so empty that it could even take place on the surface of Pluto. But no, it is here on Earth. And it’s not in a small town on the border of Minnesota and North Dakota, but rather a small town on the border of New York and Canada.
“Frozen River” tells a story of immigration problems in the United States. However, it tells a story about illegal immigration that few would ever see. Rather than taking place on America’s southern border, it takes place on America’s northern border. By now we already see one thing that makes “Frozen River” a great movie: it tells the kind of story you’d rarely hear on a typical day. It shows a side of life you didn’t know you wanted to see.
Immigration isn’t the total focus of the story. The real focus is on Ray (Melissa Leo), a nearly broke single mother trying to raise two kids after her drug addicted husband runs off. Ray’s current job barely pays anything so as an act of desperation, she teams up with a Native American woman (Misty Upham) to smuggle in immigrants from Canada through a reservation on the border.
“Frozen River” isn’t nearly as much of a heated political story as this year’s other film about illegal immigration, “The Visitor.” Instead, “Frozen River” uses immigration as a way to further characterize Ray’s struggle for survival in a very harsh, unforgiving world. A world almost as harsh as the bleak winter in which Ray transfers the new immigrants through.
This film is the very first writing and directorial effort by Courtney Hunt, but she works like a pro. The empty snow covered landscapes are filmed meticulously like the empty deserts of the southwestern US or, as mentioned earlier, the Minnesota/North Dakota landscape of “Fargo.” And this leads me to believe Hunt was influenced largely by the Coen Brothers. Ray’s story reminds me of an even darker version of a typical Coen Brothers’ story: the kind of character who will resort to literally anything in order to pay the bills.
“Frozen River” has been most praised for the lead performance by Melissa Leo, and for good reason. She earned the Oscar nomination she received. Leo plays Ray naturally and turns her into a natural human being. You’d think someone would portray a character living in this horrible a way of life by yelling and overacting. Even during some of Ray’s worst moments, Leo still manages to play her with a calm demeanor that never the less is extremely stressed out throughout the film’s entire 97 minute running time. It is possible that the best acting comes when it doesn’t feel like the actor is acting at all. In this case, you could barely tell Leo was acting. All I could see was a good-hearted, washed up woman named Ray and not a Hollywood actress named Melissa Leo.
The one thing that bothered me most about “Frozen River” wasn’t about the movie itself, but the MPAA rating it was given. “Frozen River” is rated R for “some language.” That some language is a mere two uses of the f-word. That’s right, only two. However, one of those uses was in the verb form which by the MPAA’s standards automatically merits an R rating. I don’t think this should deter anyone from letting anyone under 17 see this movie. I doubt those two uses of the f-word will make any child want to participate in an orgy or shoot-up the nearest elementary school. No, the only reason these words are used is because these are the words people actually say, especially in tough situations portrayed in this movie. To not allow the characters to curse would be in a way censoring reality.
And this is exactly what “Frozen River”‘s R rating is doing: censoring reality. I know it’s not a happy film but I guarantee anyone who sees this in the end will feel maybe not like a better person but like a slightly more enlightened person. It will give you an understanding of what it’s like to live with only $5 in your pocket. Isn’t this what movies are supposed to do? Aren’t they supposed to make us face reality, enlighten us, and put us into the shoes of another character for a brief amount of time before taking us back out to face our own lives again?
Recommended for Fans of: Fargo, The Visitor, No Country for Old Men, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada