In upstate New York, Ray (Leo) is struggling to cope after her husband ran off with their house-payment savings. Her sons TJ (McDermott), 15, and Ricky (Reilly), 5, don't really understand what's happened but want to help. Then Ray meets the Mohawk native Lila (Upham) and teams up to make some quick cash by driving across the frozen river to Canada and smuggling illegal immigrants back into the USA. But this is very dangerous business, and both woman will have to examine the risks they're taking.
With gently rhythmic filmmaking, Hunt carefully builds the setting to such a degree that we actually begin to understand the fragile relationship between the people of the reservation, with their own laws and culture, and the residents of New York state. It's a tricky collision of people with very different backgrounds, and in Ray and Lila the script finds a terrific central duo to explore the issues. These women are warm and steely, and they really shouldn't get along at all, let alone trust each other.
Leo gives a quietly brilliant performance as Ray, a woman pushed beyond desperation to protect her children and make some very difficult decisions.
This isn't flashy acting; it's raw and earthy and powerfully involving. And she bounces wonderfully off of Upham's wonderfully sardonic, matter-of-fact Lila.
Meanwhile, the various men and boys who float around them add grit and texture, as do the two men we never meet: the ones who abandoned them.
This is an intriguing edge of Western culture, where everyone seems to have a gun that they're not afraid to wave around. Hunt uses the setting to create a real sense of impending tragedy, as we spend much of the film afraid to see what's going to happen to these people next. And since we really grow to care about them, the surprising twists and turns in the final act are both powerful and haunting.
Run time: 97 mins
In Theaters: Friday 31st October 2008
Box Office USA: $2.1M
Distributed by: Sony Pictures Classics
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 88%
Fresh: 112 Rotten: 16
IMDB: 7.2 / 10
Director: Courtney Hunt
Producer: Chip Hourihan, Heather Rae
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