I generally try to find something positive to say about a director’s first film. But I can’t with Frozen River. I have no doubt that writer/director Courtney Hunt is passionate about her story and characters, but this film is so ludicrous, so completely unbelievable and the characters so unbelievably stupid that I felt insulted watching it.
I know there are people in the USA who are desperately poor. I’m not being cavalier, life isn’t always easy and I have no problem with films that want to show that, but making a whiny, dumb film about stupid people is of no help to anyone. An overwrought Hollywood melodrama is more instructive and socially redeeming than anything in Frozen River. You want to make a serious cinematic statement? Then make a serious film Goddamn it! Not a laughable collection of idiotic moments strung together to run 97 minutes.
As Frozen River begins, we meet Ray (Melissa Leo) sitting in one of her two cars crying because her gambling addict husband has run off with money she was holding as payment for the delivery of a “double wide” trailer. Right on cue, the double wide arrives and Ray has to explain that she doesn’t have the money she promised. Then, trailer delivery person said something that hit me hard. He mentions that this is the second time that Ray has ordered delivery of the double wide and for the second time, she has not had the money she owes. Am I to understand that Ray is so dumb she doesn’t realize that reneging on a deal means you don’t get delivery of the goods? Her own teenage son notes that it was really stupid for Ray to have hidden the trailer payment in the glove compartment of her car.
Apparently, this is not the first time Dad has run off with household money to gamble. I understand that Ray is among the working poor but is she really so bad off that she can only offer popcorn and Tang as supper for her kids? Isn’t there any welfare or Food Stamps in New York State? How about a Salvation Army soup kitchen? What about a “Faith Based” initiative in the area? Is there really no one who can help?
While I was trying to figure this out, we meet Lila (Misty Upham), a Mohawk woman who steals one of Ray’s cars and drives it back to her small trailer in the woods. Ray follows her and confronts Lila by brandishing a gun. Ray threatens to call the State Police and report this car theft, but Lila laughs at this saying the State Police have no jurisdiction on Mohawk land.
What? The NY State Police have no jurisdiction in dealing with a felony? Yes they do! There is such a thing as the Tribal Police, but they have only limited authority and the State Police are obliged to investigate any felony, including auto theft. Even on Mohawk land. Look it up, I did.
While I was trying to process this legal idiocy, Lila, apropos of nothing, tells this strange white trash woman with a gun, whose car she has just stolen, that she is a smuggler of illegal aliens across the Canadian border and wants her help because her car has a trunk that can popped open from the driver seat. And Ray agrees to do it!
We can understand why Ray helps in the smuggling, she is getting good money; less clear is why Lila does it. It has something to do with Lila’s bitterness at having her child removed from her custody by the Mohawk tribe. Although the film NEVER explains why this was done, just think about it for a minute. The whole tribe decided that the baby would be better off without Lila. If we are to accept the Tribal Elders wisdom in other areas, don’t we have to accept it here as well?
At this point the film becomes intolerable. A few very annoying observations, why is every character in a bad mood or grumpy? Why does the trailer salesman schedule Christmas Day as the day for finalizing the deal for Ray’s new double wide? Christmas Day?
Here’s a mystery, we are told many times that Lila has bad eyesight and can’t work because of it. Her vision problems can’t even be helped with glasses, “they make me car sick,” Lila tells us. Her eyesight is so poor she can’t write legibly or even count the money she gets from her smuggling activities; she has to ask Ray if a particular bill is a fifty or a twenty. But then later in the story, when Ray and Lila are looking for a discarded duffle bag on the frozen river, Lila finds it by seeing faint tire tracks, on smooth black ice, at night, from a moving car. Huh?
This film actually made my brain hurt. Remember, just because you have an important topic and a serious purpose that does not mean the film you make is important and serious.
Personally, I like characters that are unlikable. I mean, neither the Godfather nor Hamlet are very likable characters; but they are at least interesting characters. I have no problem with dumb characters either, Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo was a first class dolt, but he was as fascinating as he was pathetic.
I did not care for any of the morons who populated Frozen River and I was reminded of the cruel truth that some people really do deserve the hard luck they have. When the only enjoyable part of a film is a scene where an infant stuffed in a duffle-bag nearly freezes to death on a frozen river, that should give you an indication of just how incredibly dumb and inept the rest of the movie is.