There are few films quite as oppressively bleak as Frozen River. The story takes place in a part of New York state, near the Canadian border, that feels like the dirty, frigid, desolate armpit of America. We follow a single mother, Ray (Leo), whose husband has just robbed her blind and taken off to indulge a gambling problem in Atlantic City. Trapped in a dead-end part-time job at the dollar store, which can no longer pay for the meager necessities of living in her cramped trailer, she feeds her miserable children Tang and popcorn for breakfast and dinner. And even if everything in Ray’s life were suddenly to go right, the greatest dream she could ever realize would be to move into a double-wide trailer home. Except we know things aren’t going to go right, because, faced with the heartbreaking possibility of having nothing to put under the tree at Christmas, Ray has decided to earn a little side money by teaming up with a woman from the local Mohawk reservation, Lilo (Upham), to smuggle people from Canada to the U.S. via car trunk.
Frozen River touches on issues of immigration, human trafficking and even national security (when Ray is faced with smuggling a Pakistani couple, she sees only two potential terrorists), but the film is really about desperation. How far would you go if you had to go far simply to scrape by?
The narrative is often suspenseful, moving, gut-wrenching, but—most of all—bleak. Sometimes too bleak. Can Ray really not find another job that would hire her full-time? She has both her car and the one her husband abandoned. Couldn’t she sell one? Should making the final payment on that rent-to-own TV really be a priority? I don’t even have a TV that big.
But if you can accept that Ray is truly trapped, it’s easy to sympathize with her. She’s singularly devoted to her children, and as everything falls apart, she hides behind a stoic façade, revealing just enough vulnerability to break your heart. Leo’s performance is Oscar-worthy, and it’s a shame that it’ll likely go unnoticed.
The bottom line: