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.