Shot on DV and acquired by Sony Pictures Classics for under a million, River won the prestigious Grand Jury Prize in the Dramatic Competition at this past year's Sundance Film Festival, beating out Lance Hammer's upcoming, hypnotic Ballast and Ryan Fleck & Anna Boden's Sugar, Fleck's follow-up to the enthralling Half Nelson.
Filmed in upstate New York, Hunt's film stars Melissa Leo as Ray, the white mother, an employee of a local 99-cent store and estranged wife of a delinquent gambler husband. Her husband, Mohawk-born, sells her car to Lila (Misty Upham), a local Mohawk who works for a Bingo hall. Lila sees the car as an opportunity, but she doesn't expect a gun-toting standoff with Ray at her small trailer. After some minor strife, the women team up and become smugglers for illegals between Quebec and the U.S.
Hunt has a lot working for her. Her minor budget gives the film a scrappy dramatic pull that would seem (more) oppressive if it had been made with big studio sheen. The snow-swept tundra gives cinematographer Reed Dawson Morano and the director a naturally beautiful setting to work with. Most of all, she has Leo, the New York-born character actor who cut her teeth on Homicide: Life on the Streets and broke out as the saturnine wife to Benicio Del Toro in 21 Grams. Ms. Leo has the face of Shakespearean grief: Even in small glimpses of happiness, her sunken eyes express irrepressible melancholy.
The screenplay, written by the director, sets up many conflicts for both Lila and Ray: Ray's eldest son (Charlie McDermott) is tired of taking care of his little brother, a state trooper (a very good Michael O'Keefe) starts suspecting the tandem, Lila's Mohawk elders do not approve of her newfound job nor her white business partner, and then there's the French-Canadian gangster (Mark Boone Jr.) lurking around. But Hunt's script's language is dull and expositional, often working against the authenticity that Leo and Upham bring to their roles. It also loads the film with useless detours, chief amongst them an insipid bit involving a Pakistani couple's baby being thrown in the snow after being mistaken for luggage. These situations divert attention from Lila's problems with her mother-in-law and her infant son, a far more fascinating dilemma.
With a few exceptions (2004's Primer, 2001's The Believer, 1996's Welcome to the Dollhouse), Sundance has consistently awarded films that talk about cultural issues without offering much insight into the matters. They also crudely saddle more visually and dramatically inventive films with special direction or cinematography awards. Frozen River certainly isn't the worst of its prize-holders, but it highlights a vapid streak in the festival's ever-deteriorating cred. You'd hardly believe the same festival once showcased such groundbreaking work as the Coen brothers' Blood Simple and Todd Haynes' Poison.
Man this is a cold river.
Run time: 97 mins
In Theaters: Friday 31st October 2008
Box Office USA: $2.1M
Distributed by: Sony Pictures Classics
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 88%
Fresh: 112 Rotten: 16
IMDB: 7.2 / 10
Director: Courtney Hunt
Producer: Heather Rae, Chip Hourihan
Screenwriter: Courtney Hunt
Starring: Melissa Leo as Ray Eddy, Misty Upham as Lila Littlewolf, Charlie McDermott as TJ, John Canoe as Bernie Littlewolf, Jay Klaitz as Guy Versailles, Dylan Carusona as Jimmy, James Reilly as Ricky, Michael O'Keefe as Trooper Finnerty, Mark Boone Junior as Jacques Bruno