Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo) is not a pretty sight. One of the first shots of “Frozen River” shows her slumped in a chair in the early morning hours, and the camera moves slowly and meticulously over her features, ravaged by age and nicotine, the crisscross lines around her eyes testifying to what seems like decades of dreary drabness. And yet Ray radiates the particular power of a woman who relies on no one but herself, for sanity and survival.
Her small morning break over, Ray fusses over her small son’s jacket because it’s freezing outside and at the same time calls to her older, 15-year-old son to get ready for school. Mentally she’s steeling herself to face the day and whatever tribulations it may bring.
“Frozen River” is a remarkable story about unremarkable people, struggling to live out their lives in the desolate, winter landscape in a border town perched on the St. Lawrence River between New York State and Quebec.
Ray and her husband had been saving forever to buy a trailer house bigger than their current one, and with better heating, but just before delivery the husband had taken all the money and disappeared, probably to Atlantic City to nurse his gambling habit.
This has been the story of Ray’s life: some rendition of Murphy’s Law had always kicked in just when she was on the verge of attaining a little relief. With no cash in the house, no food in the fridge and her pay check from working the cash register at the Dollar Store another week away, Ray serves Kool-Aid and popcorn in lieu of meals. For herself, she shoves a cigarette into her mouth to stave off hunger pangs.
No 11th-hour salvation awaits Ray — instead, she becomes acquainted with Lila Littlewolf, a Mohawk living on the local reservation and as glumly depressed as she is. Lila however, has some cash — from smuggling illegal aliens over the frozen St. Lawrence — stashed in a car trunk.
Ray bullies and bluffs her way into getting a piece of the action and for the first few smuggle runs it looks as if she’s earning real money for the first time in her life. She’s certainly not going to let the sight of young Asians cramming themselves into her car boot for a teeth-splintering journey in sub-zero temperatures dent her determination to get that trailer house and buy some chicken for the kids.
Despair pierces the story like a skewer in a piece of uncooked meat, lying pallidly in a broken oven; the operative term here is no heat. However hard Ray tries for a better life, she’s always tripping over obstacles in her ungainly boots, muttering curses under her breath. Lila is no better; overweight and shortsighted, she lumbers through existence with all the grace of a wounded bear. Lila has but one ambition; to regain custody of a baby son now in the care of her mother-in-law, and for this end she has given up almost everything else including her place in the Mohawk community where the mother-in-law is a prominent figure. She and Ray have zero rapport at first but grudgingly and by degrees, they come to a sort of understanding (ah, the language of motherhood), if not of actual friendship.
Director Courtney Hunt (who also wrote the screenplay) is wonderfully perceptive, letting Ray and Lila tell the story rather than the other way around.
More than anything, “Frozen River” is an observational account of two women with nothing going for them except the clawing need to feed their children, and survive. At one point Ray says to Lila about their kids: “Don’t let them eat potato chips all the time” — her way of saying how much she cares. Ray and Lila don’t smile, aren’t nice or feminine or in any way winning. In cinema, women like that are a rarity and you’ll find that strangely enough, you just don’t want to leave their company.