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    Frozen River

    Surface tension

    "Frozen River," about two poor women's perilous attempts to make some illegal cash through smuggling, is too calculated to quite feel like real life.


    "Frozen River" is occasionally striking and mostly mundane. Among its most striking images is that of an old green car driving over a river. The frozen St. Lawrence is perfectly safe to drive on, one woman assures another, because there's no black ice, and so many people cross that they even plow the snow for you. And the U.S. and Canadian authorities can't bother you either, because it's the Mohawk nation on both sides. So over the ice the women go.

    Written and directed by: Courtney Hunt.
    Cast: Melissa Leo, Misty Upham, Michael O'Keefe, Mark Boone Junior, Charlie McDermott, James Reilly, Dylan Carusona, Jay Klaitz, Michael Sky, John Canoe.
    Cinematography: Reed Morano.
    Edited by: Kate Williams.

    Related links: Official site
    Angelika Film Center
    18 West Houston at Mercer St.
    Lincoln Plaza
    Broadway between 62nd and 63rd

    If you think of the image of a car inching over a flat, white, featureless expanse of ice, you also have an impression of the film "Frozen River." In both cases, you can see everything coming a mile away.

    "Frozen River" is a decent but predictable movie about poor women struggling to keep their heads above water. Ray (Melissa Leo), a mother of two and part-time discount-store clerk, has just lost her husband to random disappearance. Knowing that he has probably taken her money, hopped a bus out of town and vanished forever, she still spends her last $7 to put gas in the car and track him down. Instead of her husband, she finds his car, and instead of him in it, she finds an Indian widow named Lila Littlewolf (played nicely by Misty Upham). Lila found the keys in the car so she helped herself to it. Thus begins a tense partnership.

    Frozen River  
    Lila knows how to make some significant and quick cash, ferrying Chinese illegals from Mohawk Canada to Mohawk America. So off the two go in the green Dodge Spirit with a torn sticker on the back that says, "Easy Does It," and a broken nameplate that says "SPIPI" instead of Spirit. Once in New York, just count the cash, open the trunk, let the customers out, and you've never had an easier payday.

    Ray desperately needs the money to buy a better trailer and Christmas presents for her kids, and so she and Lila tempt fate by making the trip again, and again. You know these women are both poor because the movie pounds you over the head with it at every opportunity. When Ray isn't flouting the law to make a dollar, she's being beaten down by the boss or getting her stuff repossessed by guys in big trucks. We get it. The world — the male world, in particular — isn't fair to Ray.

    Every one of the many bad things that happen to her is meticulously telegraphed. Guess what happens when she tells her older son never to use his blowtorch when she isn't home. Does he listen? Of course not. Do bad things ensue? Yes, they do. And for the big finale, guess what happens when Ray — just like the classic movie cop who is a week away from retirement — has to do "just one more" job. Do bad things ensue? Yes, they do.

      Frozen River
    Many critics will probably admire this portrait of a family ground down by poverty, and maybe they should. But something is wrong with this picture. I've been poor, freezing, starving and desperate, and I can tell you this — there were other things happening besides repo men knocking down the door. There were down times, there were a few good times, there were friends. "Frozen River" has none of these, and it verges on caricature because of it. It is badly overcalculated. It is unsubtle.

    Still, I like where the movie winds up. Writer-director Courtney Hunt has done at least one thing well, and that is to navigate between an unrealistically pat ending and flat-out doom. Both of our main characters, Ray and Lila, have had to grow somewhat — overcoming their decidedly antisocial personalities to arrive at a point where they aren't sabotaging themselves and everyone around them. It's pro-feminist without being obvious or simplistic. For a movie that feels a little bit wrong, it's an outcome that feels a little bit right.

    AUGUST 2, 2008

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