Frozen River - DVD Review

'the cinematography is beautiful but in a way negatively representative of the film itself; isolated, cold, lonely and desperately hard to warm to'

Films are, by their very nature, always mere snapshots of a life or lives lived in a fictitious realm off-screen. Even in something as expansive as There Will Be Blood we don't sit and watch Daniel Plainview grow from small baby to oil magnate - we are only there for the parts the director and screenwriter have deigned fit for the viewer to see.

And so it is we end up in the company of Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo) for just a few days around Christmas in upstate New York. Mother of two kids whose gambling addicted husband has just ran off with her savings, Ray is struggling to cope (indeed the feeling is there that she has always been struggling to cope) and struggling even more so to pay her many bills on time. From that simple setup, the events of Frozen River start to snowball. Ray is forced into cohorts with the people-smuggling Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham) a woman with her own problems, complicated by the codes and conducts of the reservation where she lives. The two engage in increasingly perilous crossings along the top of the titular Frozen River, an un-policed border area that allows illegal immigrants passage from Canada to the U.S by way of Ray's car boot.

As such, you can't fault the areas of Ray's life that Frozen River director Courtney Hunt focuses on. The crosses along the river's top are perilous and tense and the dynamic between the reluctant Ray and belligerent Lila adds to both the perils of the situation and its perhaps inevitable disasters and consequences. What you can though fault is that despite the fact that Ray is an extraordinarily well-rounded character considering we know so little about her (the film doesn't waste time with lengthy expositions of her life up to this point), it never feels like we spend long enough in her company or around her in normal situations to feel any sympathy for her. We never really, for example, see what she is trying to do to get out of the situation she finds herself in, apart from a brief scene where she asks her boss for full-time work. This kind of omission ultimately makes it very difficult to sympathise with the extremes (and extreme desperation) that she is occasionally willing to go to. Similarly, there is also a driving force in Lila's life which is again never fully explained, rather the viewer apparently needs to accept the extraordinary events that appear to have occurred leading up to her meeting with Ray, thus motivating her own actions through the film.

Some viewers may find themselves being drawn in by the above elements but for me, they had the effect of leaving me feeling frozen out of the narrative and detached from the central protagonists. The cinematography is beautiful but in a way negatively representative of the film itself; isolated, cold, lonely and desperately hard to warm to. Frozen River is indeed an interesting and involving tale that will hold your attention but it is also extremely hard to like it and therefore to be effected by it on as many levels as Hunt so obviously wants you to be. As a result many will walk away from it with a feeling perhaps more approaching frustration, resentment even, than sympathy.

Look further...

'Leo gives Ray, a mother of two abandoned by her gambling addict husband, a scrappy, world-weary humanity that’s always fierce, never sappy. It’s the kind of subtle, layered, unshowy performance meant for an Oscar' - M. Carter @ The Movies


  1. yeah i gotta say i thought this movie was a bit overrated to me. it was quite subtle btu didn't really stir me. i think i would much rather read the book probably

  2. I thought it had lots of moments and it wanted to be dark without being dark so everything always ends up ok through a few too many cheesy moments (especially the kid/exploitation substory - that thing ended horribly!). Overall I think I gave it a 6, so yeah...

  3. While I'll admit that awards like The Oscars can seem self-indulgent, I must credit them for occasionally pointing me towards movies like this.

    Had it not been for Melissa Leo's nomination, I might never have heard of this dreary tale.

  4. It's a difficult one. Like Univarn said there are some decent moments and good ideas but it definitely lacks something & therefore, as Candice points out it looks as though it has been overrated in some places.

    Interesting that it's based on a book. I must admit I didn't know that... might have to hunt that down.