Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Frozen River: Slurpees Half Price

Melissa Leo is in a big budget picture out now alongisde mega-uber-super-duper-screen legends Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. But you could probably skip that film that can only generate lukewarm reviews and box office, and see her in Frozen River, filmed for less than 1% of the cost and is something you aren't likely to see much in movies.

Leo plays Ray Eddy, a poor woman with two boys (T.J., 15 and Ricky, 5), who lives at the northern edge of New York state, near the Canadian border. When we meet her, her gambling-addicted husband has vanished with money they need to purchase their double-wide. She's not a very likable character, and T.J. blames her for his father running off, though, in fairness, she's in the difficult situation of keeping her family together while not letting the missing dad destroy it.

She crosses paths with Lila, a Mohawk Indian whose husband was killed and whose son was taken away from her when she was caught smuggling.

This leads the two to end up smuggling immigrants across the Canadian border through Mohawk reservation, which is half on the USA border and half on the Canadian border. Ray's initial reluctance is plausibly denied by Lila's insistance that what they're doing isn't illegal, because the reservation can admit whomever it wants and, uh, I guess, let whomever it wants off the reservation?

It's a dubious justification, but one that serves well enough to convince the desperate for money Ray that she's not really a criminal as she, you know, commits all these crimes. As it usually does, her life of crime has some negative consequences, as does her sense of right and wrong.

I won't spoil anything here, but let's just say her desperation leads her to venture into the dark, mean streets of Canada. So, you know.

This is a good low-budget flick that tells its story crisply, without relying too heavily on dialogue--Lila barely talks at all--and playing nicely on the cold, desolate poverty of Plattsburgh, New York. There's a little too much shakey-cam in the opening scene (though I think I understand why) but things settle down and draw a picture which is sort of the opposite of the pristine snowscapes of the Coen Brothers' Fargo and Sam Raimi's A Simple Plan. The snow always looks questionable, dirty and even sinister.

The acting is good. While Melissa Leo allows the camera and lighting to show all the age and poverty she's supposed have endured, Misty Upham packs on 40 pounds to play her laconic Indian sidekick. They look and act their parts--very naturally, as if director Courteney Hunt pulled them out of the trailer parks in Plattsburgh. The boys (Charlie McDermott, James Reilly) do solid work, and Michael O'Keefe, normally seen as a white-collar type, if I'm not mistaken, makes a credible state trooper whom it's really not clear if he's racist or just (rightly) suspicious of Lila.

The ending of a movie like this is tricky. Very, very tricky. Our heroines are criminals, after all. But as we get to know them, the movie--almost grudgingly--gives us a chance to like them. I won't say how it ends, but I will say it avoids the common pitfalls this sort of movie often falls prey to.

Solid flick, worth checking out.


  1. Melissa Leo is one of my all time favorite actresses. She was great in Homicide Life on the Streets which was the precursor to The Wire since a lot of the talent was nurthered there. She also was great in the Young Riders which was a cheesy Western that told the phony baloney story of the Pony Express with Buffalo Bill, Wild Bill Hickock and Jesse James no less. But she is very, very believable in the hardscrabble white trash roles.

  2. She walks a fine line, too: She has to be both bitchy (at least a little) and sympathetic. Most actresses can't pull that off.


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