Plot summary (from the studio): Frozen River is the story of Ray Eddy, an upstate New York trailer mom who is lured into the world of illegal immigrant smuggling when she meets a Mohawk girl who lives on a reservation that straddles the US-Canadian border. Broke after her husband takes off with the down payment for their new doublewide, Ray reluctantly teams up with Lila, a smuggler, and the two begin making runs across the frozen St. Lawrence River carrying illegal Chinese and Pakistani immigrants in the trunk of Ray’s Dodge Spirit. At the onset, Ray and Lila’s partnership seems doomed to failure as Lila normally doesn’t “work with whites,” but Lila’s eagerness to get her baby son back from her mother-in-law who has “stolen” him lead Lila and Ray into an uneasy partnership.
At first the money is good and the ice holds. With help from Jimmy, the Mohawk dealer, they make several runs and soon the money for Ray’s doublewide is within her grasp. As quickly as things began to go well, the entire scheme is threatened as the home life of each woman threatens to wreck their plan. T.J., Ray’s 15-year-old son, struggles to take care of the house and hold things together for his younger brother Ricky while Mom is “at work”. And Bernie, Lila’s friend, tries to find her a straight job on the Reservation so that she can get out of smuggling and reclaim her baby son. However, Lila, who lives in a camper, feels she has no realistic way to support him without smuggling and rejects Bernie’s efforts.
Finally, with the money she needs almost set aside, Ray and Lila embark on a final run across the river which, if they survive, will set things right. But when the run goes bad, the Quebec police chase the women onto the ice and, with the New York State troopers on the other side of the river, the two women have to make a desperate escape. Trapped on the Reservation, the fate of Lila and Ray is left in the hands of the Tribal Council. With few options left, Ray and Lila’s partnership is tested; they must face the consequences of their actions to survive.
Warning: Spoilers below!
- Melissa Leo was awesome in this! I didn’t even realize she had been nominated for an Oscar for her role as Ray until I looked her up on IMDb. It was definitely deserved here.
- The grim, depressing reality of the two women’s situations was made clear without exposition. They both lived in bare-bones lodging without a single luxury in sight. No iPad for every family member or tricked out or snowboard wall rack featuring the latest gear. While watching this, I could easily imagine both Ray and Lila going through the same damn drudgery day after day without any hope of improvement. It was very tough to watch, but made the women’s actions more believable. If I were in that situation, I’d definitely look for a big score just to get out of the damn hole for once.
- Speaking of depressing situations, how about the jobs the women had? I guess you could say they should feel lucky to be employed at all, but man. Two years at Yankee Dollar and still just a part-timer in danger of being fired with no warning while having to put up with a jackass 20-something manager? Or Lila going around verifying bingo cards all damn day? It would be hard to work up the willpower to go to those jobs day after day.
- I like that the whole story about the husband leaving was revealed slowly. Obviously something big had to have happened for him to suddenly take off with the down payment for the trailer, but instead of blurting out the reasons (gambling problem, troubled marriage) right away, we just get the image of a defeated Ray sitting in the car in her robe as the realization of the missing money sets in. Then later, through arguments with TJ, we learn the real story.
- I loved the screenplay and hoped to see Courtney Hunt, the writer, have a long list of IMDb credits after the recognition earned from this film. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like that has happened, but I’d go see another movie of hers in a heartbeat.
- Some of the scenes with the kids, both on their own and with Ray, felt dull and unnecessary. I get that the writer was trying to show how they were largely alone, unsupervised, unsure of exactly what was going on with their mother, etc. but a few of those scenes really took me out of the main storyline.
- Ray’s 180 at the end of the film (deciding to take the fall for smuggling so Lila wouldn’t get kicked off the reservation) wasn’t very convincing. Nothing in the buildup to that moment led me to believe the change-of-heart towards Lila was organic. Sure, they softened towards each other after the first meeting. However, there was absolutely zero foreshadowing that Ray would suddenly put Lila’s child (Lila could get her son back if she stayed out of jail) ahead of her own (Ray would obviously not be there for her kids while serving four months in jail). Yeah, I could see besties covering for each other like that, but these two? They were never really more than cordial.
Frozen River was a pleasantly surprising film. I quickly got caught up in the drama surrounding Ray and Lila’s lives, and found their downtrodden existence oddly fascinating. Melissa Leo’s wonderful performance and a mostly strong script helped make this a quality viewing experience. I give the film 4 stars out of 5.