Saturday, February 28, 2009

Frozen River (2008)


Frozen River is a squeakily schematic motion picture. The film has its central character and that central character changes, is purified or at least moderately reshaped by the aching bitterness to which she succumbs, in the way that more pedestrian independent pictures strictly enforce. The most positively intriguing element of Frozen River is probably the central character's name. Melissa Leo gives a raw performance as the masculine-sounding Ray Eddy, which fits because Ray's husband has abandoned her and their two children, leaving her to serve as both mother and father. It is this starring turn that has ostensibly sanctioned considerable acclaim for Frozen River, but it seems to have been an excuse—most critics tend to bow before the ugliness a certain segment of independent cinema peddles, over and over, perhaps because they believe anything ugly is important and worth respecting. Beautiful films, like attractive people, cannot be trusted, after all: they are either dumb or duplicitous. Perhaps many are, but when the dividends of scabrousness for the sake scabrousness are as meager as they are in the case of Frozen River, a night with Cary Grant as crafted by Alfred Hitchcock or a little farcical frolicking with Max Ophuls is the medication for the disease that is overwrought, vague and vacuous grasps at profundity.

Leo is a source of onscreen strength—and, for the viewer, along with the underrated Misty Upham as Mohawk Indian Lila Littlewolf, an incentive to hang on. Leo's countenance is a finely informative canvas for writer-director Courtney Hunt—wearily weathered, desperate but clinging to a lingering sense of dignity and conveying a history of tragic personal paroxysms to her being. Hunt makes the most out of it, in all of its melancholic hurt and, indeed, desire, wringing from Leo moments of sincerity that temporarily salve the film's more grievous errors. (Ray sees as her and her children's panacea a new home, and the film is at its most convincing when it allows Leo to inform the viewer of the import of this goal through pregnant silences.) Hunt's film, for all of its flaws and foibles, is an adequate stage on which Leo and Upham stir and smolder.

Hunt's picture is a defiantly “tough” woman's film, and for that it deserves a measured respect. What ultimately unites and even ties Ray and Lila together is their shared roles as mothers (single mothers at that). Poverty is in some ways the prime mover of Frozen River, but maternity proves to be the enduring guarantor of bonding. Hunt's film may be assailed, then, for being almost anti-feminist—the hoary bromide against male interpretations of motherhood usually insisting that the significance most men see in women bearing children is somehow sexist or at least reduces women. Yet such concerns are more unrealistic than anything Hunt has created.

Frozen River, however, is a sluggishly paced, visually dull film. The slightly surreal setting—a sizable portion of the picture does indeed play out on a frozen river—may enliven cameraman Reed Morano's compositions but the film's tinny sights and sounds tend to undermine the sense of sinking, irrevocable doom in which Hunt is so abundantly interested. More unforgivable, Hunt's widely lauded screenplay (having been in the spotlight after receiving Indie Spirit and Oscar nominations) is as disheveled as Leo's Ray, and more desultory. When Ray and Lila smuggle illegal immigrants into the United States across the from Canada through the Mohawk reservation, and a duffle bag is tossed out of a car by Ray because the two immigrants they are driving across the titular frozen river are “Pakis” (Pakistanis), it is only more manipulative than it is predictable when Ray learns what was in the bag. Her older son's affinity for the family blowtorch (“I told you to not use that when I'm not here!” Ray scolds her son) leaves no question whatsoever as to how a certain event will turn out when he attempts to use it.

Charlie McDermott is less successful in the role of Ray's older son, T.J. His line readings are too affected for a film which is so desperately striving to be an extended verite trip into despondency and despair. McDermott is never distracting, but he contributes little to the proceedings. Hunt continually places T.J. in the role of Ray's oft-inquisitor but the actor is not up to the task—though he fortunately never resorts to a grating pout or embarrassing fits of screaming.

Sifting through the film, it is uncertain what, if any, political perspective Hunt is bringing to her story about a frantic pair of women viewing the deed of smuggling people into the United States as their last hope of scrounging a life for themselves. The depiction of widespread corruption is believable, but Hunt seems unsure whether she wants to delve more deeply into the greater community's fabric—teasing the idea on several occasions, such as a few scenes in which Ray briefly deals with characters for the benefit of the story and little else. The schematic trait never dissipates; it arguably only worsens as the film approaches the final descent—signposted with the two famous last words of any crime story, “...one last...” Everything—including the ending and Ray's final decision—are easily foreseeable and though Leo and Upham mount a reasonably compelling pair of entwined performances, making their characters wholly “authentic,” the film lets them down. Close-up shots of Ray's repulsively rusty shower head and bathtub seem like cynical, pretentiously arty endeavoring to exploit lower-class angst, anxiety and opprobrium. Many of Hunt's cliches are papered over by Leo and Upham's more precise moments of self-recognition and empathetic humanity, but as fine as these performances are, they can only camouflage so much. Onerous lines of dialogue pile up and Hunt's grasps at profundity begin to completely lose all appeal and meaning, until the film quietly but surely finds itself devoid of the very life it so wantonly determined to depict drains out of it like so much seepage from a melting frozen body of water.

41 comments:

glimmer said...

i have no idea why people went crazy for this film. i mean it didn't suck. but i don't know. i think a film success in indie is almost based on my not getting the mania or wishing it wasn't made. either/ or...

Pierre de Plume said...

I really like this film despite its shortcomings, not the least of which was the recurring reminder that it's an indie. One example would be the overstated understatedness of scenes where Leo is recording her outgoing voicemail greeting -- too much self-consciousness, IMO, not in the performance but the writing.

Nevertheless, I like the picture that's painted in this film, though, by the way, the lack of light in so many of the scenes becomes grating and makes me wonder if it was shot that way because of budget constraints.

Leo's Ray Eddy, very well performed, falls oddly into a mold of character that fits Oscar's criteria. I agree with you, Alexander, about Upham. She has created a memorable character, though I'm not sure if this is a result of acting skill or simply good casting.

Overall, I like the realities that are depicted in this film. This includes the economic on-the-edgeness of the circumstances of Leo's family, the un-Hollywood-like presentations of the two sons, the cultural realities at the reservation, and so on.

On the basis of this film, I'd be interested to see what Courtney Hunt does next time around.

Thanks for your perceptive review, Alexander.

Alexander Coleman said...

Glimmer and Pierre, thank you both for the terrific comments.

Glimmer, I agree with you. This was on my long list back in the summer to see, but it was at the bottom of the list. It was playing in Berkeley across the bay from me and I went there to see several other films. Ultimately, I'm glad I waited for the DVD (which is rare for me) in this instance. I must laugh at your statement that an indie film's success is almost based on your not understanding the mania or wishing it wasn't made. Ha.

Pierre, yes, you're right--the film does have its stronger points, though I found that they were almost always the result of Leo and Upham lending the film some vitality when it needed it the most.

That is a fantastic point about the scene where Leo records her outgoing voicemail greeting. The scene is mildly amusing in that sad, angry way many moments of "comic relief" in indies are, but it is, like you say, too self-conscious.

I'm glad Leo was able to "sell" as much of Hunt's screenplay as she did, as it allowed me to always find the film tolerable and sometimes rather engaging. (Charlie McDermott couldn't keep up with her, but her confrontations with him were largely successful because Leo made you believe in the character's love for her children, which was more than crucial to maintain some viewer interest.)

I think I wanted a slightly more in-depth look at the reservation, and the larger community--not at the price of the film's obviously intentional "smallness," or somehow losing touch with Ray, but I did like the little touches concerning the corruption and particularly a couple of glimpses at life on the reservation.

Thank you again for the very kind words, Pierre.

Pierre de Plume said...

Thanks, Alexander.

I really appreciated the "glimpse-like" attention given to Native American culture as portrayed by this film.

Sam Juliano said...

Well, I'll admit I'm not much of a fan of this film, despite my great respect for Melissa Leo's performance. I do like the point Pierre brings up there about the voicemail greeting.
The clunky screenplay (I quite agree this is a "sluggishly paced, visually dull film") is most certainly as you observe, highly schematic, and the film is turgid, with a highly chiched story arc, which apparently is trying to make a political point that doesn't come further than feigned political correctness.
Nice point there about the "slightly surreal setting" on the river, and I love that final metaphor equating the setting with the inflated nature of the film.
On the plus side I agree that Misty Upham's performance is underestimated, as she does rise above her stock character. Still, I agree that Charlie McDermott's performance is largely ineffectual. Yes, a visit with Mr. Ophuls may indeed be the panacea here, but I assure you it would take a whole lot less. LOL!

Your near-pan is informed here for superlatively-presented "evidence."

Pierre de Plume said...

I think it's interesting how people can acknowledge a film's flaws but still walk away having widely variant reactions to the film as a whole.

Despite the problems of the script and other aspects of Frozen River, I'm glad it received recognition -- including the Oscar screenplay nomination. The Academy has awarded screenplays in the past that were a lot crummier than this one.

Alexander Coleman said...

Pierre, I agree, the glimpse of the reservation life and American Indian culture was welcome.

However, as to your other comment, although there have been worse screenplays nominated for Oscars, I would have preferred Vicky Cristina Barcelona--a film I had significant issues with--and especially Synecdoche, New York--which I loved--to be nominated for Original Screenplay. The Academy choices were weak! :)

Sam, thank you very much for the very kind and thoughtful response! I knew you did not think highly of this one--and I agree with you, the film is a turgid affair with a predictable and predominantly unexciting "character arc." Leo does some very good work in the role, but it seems like many critics fell for the film because of her performance and overlooked the myriad flaws Hunt's picture sadly suffers from. I agree that there seemed to be a political point--or at least some larger point as a whole--that Hunt was searching for, but it never congealed into a complete vision. Thank you for the very kind words.

Pierre, I'm glad you liked the film, though--you've supplied me with significant reasons for looking at the film with a more forgiving and appreciative viewpoint, something I'm always glad to receive. Thanks to you again.

Thank you both again (this time Pierre and Sam, ha).

Sam Juliano said...

Pierre: As always I respect your position, and you make a valid point about how people can mutually agree on flaws and still come away with different summary reactions. To be truthful, this film did very well with teh critics for the most part, so my own position (like Alexander's) is in the minority.

Alexander Coleman said...

True, the critics did indeed largely like the film. But then they also liked Transsiberian a good deal as well, and I found that film gravely flawed as well. And goodness knows how many others...

Moses Hernandez said...

Fine review. I thought this was pretty dull and boring but Melissa Leo was very good like you say. She deserved a better movie.

Anonymous said...

Have you reviewed VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA, SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK and TRANSSIBERIAN, Alexander?

Pierre de Plume said...

As we all probably are aware, critics as a whole can be swayed in curious directions just like anyone else. Even actors as a group -- for example, SAG -- who supposedly are experts in their craft, can exhibit preferences that seem questionable.

Just as I regard Synecdoche, New York, as a fine first effort for Kaufman as a director, I also regard Frozen River as a good first-time outing for Hunt.

Regarding the Oscar screenplay nominations, fairness and deservability weren't on my mind when I lauded the choice of Frozen River. My logic behind this is that, since quality is so often not reflected in Academy choices, it would be frustrating to invest my hopes in what the Academy chooses as "best." In my book, it's better to enjoy the Oscars for what they are rather than what they are not.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Moses. Yes, I think Leo deserved a significantly better film as well.

Anonymous, yes I have.

http://colemancornerincinema.blogspot.com/2008/08/vicky-cristina-barcelona-2008.html

http://colemancornerincinema.blogspot.com/2008/11/synecdoche-new-york-2008.html

http://colemancornerincinema.blogspot.com/2008/09/transsiberian-2008.html

I don't think much of my review of the Woody Allen film, personally, but I thought my Synecdoche, New York review stands as one of my better efforts.

Alexander Coleman said...

All entirely fair and logical points, Pierre. You're right. I should not hold the Oscars up to be something they are not, just like you say, and in this context I believe you are right. Which is why I mentioned Woody Allen's screenplay--it wasn't one of my personal favorites of the year, but I figured the Academy tends to like his screenplays as he has received a remarkable number of screenwriting nominations.

Again, thank you for exploring this particular vein. Hunt may be able to iron out some of the more flawed choices, inclinations or problems with her next film. And at the very least she found a way to extract a couple of fine performances from her two main female characters.

Moses Hernandez said...

What are you doing next Alexander? What is coming up for Coleman's Corner?

Alexander Coleman said...

Well, I just saw Two Lovers and The Class this weekend, so they are currently at the top of my list.

I also want to review the 1990s Japanese masterpiece (in my opinion, naturally) Maborosi soon.

A review of My Blueberry Nights should be written in the upcoming days.

Gomorrah will probably be given an examination. (I found it wanting in so many ways.)

After that, I'm not sure. I saw The Uninvited almost a month ago, and a couple of weeks ago The International. But they were such inconsequential, lukewarm genre entries--the former entertainingly diverting, the latter quite confused and erratic--so I'm not sure I'll ever get around to them.

Too many films! :-)

Pierre de Plume said...

I give Hunt points for a creative mind. It's the execution that's lacking. In my book, it's better to have a creative mind because execution to a significant degree can be learned. We've all seen to many films that were executed brilliantly but didn't have much juice behind them.

Alexander Coleman said...

As always, a perfectly valid point, Pierre!

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stan dietz said...

get your pitchforks ready

Pat said...

Alexander -

A fine review, as always, although I must say I had a very different reaction. I came to "Frozen River" with low expectations (I'm very weary of over-hyped, low-budget indies that have nothing more to offer than their quirky indie-ness), but wound up being compeltely engrossed in this film. To me, it was almost like a thriller, but one in which the suspense is primarily driven by whether the family will make it financially from day to day.

I do agree that Misty Upham's performance didn't recieve sufficient recognition, thought she did get an Independent Spirit nomination.

sartre said...

Why has Coleman left his corner? You're missing in action Alexander.

Despite your review I'll still not sure why you're quite so sore at Frozen River. It obviously hits some personal buttons. I thought it was a nice little Indie, highlighted by a fine central and supporting performances. I also appreciated the reminder it provided of quite how desperate some lives are in America. There is a place for films that display varying degrees of realism and social/cultural/economic ugliness. I'm not bothered that the film didn't explore reservation life more - that wasn't what it sought out to do.

Damning a film for not being more focused on our own personal interests seems a tough criticism. I also think characterizing the positive response of many critics to the film as a reflection of their seeing nothing beyond Leo's performance is a kind of lazy dismissal too. I don't mean to be chiding Alexander, but I find your critical arguments on this one less compelling.

I should point out that Frozen River is not a strong personal favorite of mine, but I was happy to see it.

Alexander Coleman said...

Pat, thank you for the kind words. I understand what you are saying about the film functioning in no small measure as a thriller. My main problem with this, however, was that it gradually became so familiar in yet another way. The "just one last job" scenario is as valid a cliche as any, or as invalid, depending on your perspective, but for a film that I found wanting in its originality, it seemed all the more problematic.

Sartre, thank you for wondering where I've been. Time constraints have been knocking me for a loop recently but I will get back to the Corner ASAP. I'm horribly behind with reviews but I shall catch up. After that I will start looking in on others' blogs again as per usual.

Although I understand your well-reasoned thoughts about the film's worth, I must disagree that the film pushed any personal buttons with me. Ultimately, I wanted the film to be more personal--in the abstract, in any event--but rather than being caught up in the central character's tragedy I was more appreciative towards Melissa Leo's performance for keeping what I interpreted as a rather minor film humming as well as it did.

The point about not delving more deeply into life on the reservation has less to do with what the film was attempting to do than with what seemed like a general, all-too-straightforward tale, which is why I found the film quite schematic and consequently unsuccessful.

I'm glad I saw the film, too, for Leo and Upham's performances, which are, again, quite strong, but the film has not stayed with me. As a depiction of American poverty, I cannot embrace it as I embraced Ballast, Shotgun Stories or even The Wrestler (the latter of which plays as part quasi-documentarian gritty indie and part predictable genre piece), but as Pierre noted earlier in the comments section, Hunt will very likely become a stronger writer-director.

I'm sorry the review read as somewhat less than fully formed or unfairly harsh and dismissive, but I hope my further comments have shed at least some light on my response to Frozen River.

sartre said...

Fair enough, Alexander.

Alexander Coleman said...

You better believe that's fair enough, Sartre! :-)

Seriously, though, I like how you challenge me. To borrow Sam's oft-read remark, you're a gentleman and a scholar.

darkcitydame4e.com said...

Bonjour! Alexander,
Thanks, to our very good friend, Sam Juliano,this mademoiselle will be viewing this film ("Frozen River along with Boudu sauvé des eaux") over the weekend.
I hope to comment on both films
on your blog and over there on Rick's blog (respectively),Oops!my lunch break is over!...15 mins ago...

Merci! Beaucoup!
Alexander,

Alexander Coleman said...

That sounds like a great plan, Dark City Dame! I will look forward to your eventual comment on this film. :-)

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