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Frozen River

Frozen River

A roundup of links on the Native-themed movie Frozen River:

My take on Frozen River
Spirit nominations for Frozen River
My Frozen River interviews
Mythic qualities of Frozen River
Films from the dark side
"First great film of the fall"
B- for Frozen River
All about Misty Upham
The story behind Frozen River
Raves for Frozen River
Frozen River better than Imprint?
Frozen River keeps rolling
Native film scores at Sundance
Misty the Mohawk smuggler

Rob's review
At the 2008 Red Nation Film Festival, I finally saw Frozen River. If you've been following this blog, you've read several rave reviews of it. You've also read my "making of" article and interview with Misty Upham.

I'm afraid I have to register a dissent from all the hosannas of praise. I thought Frozen River was good but not great. Among recent Native-themed movies, I'd put it behind The Exiles, Imprint, Four Sheets to the Wind, and Mile Post 398.

The problem wasn't the acting, which was top-notch. Melissa Leo, Misty Upham, and the boys who played Leo's sons all did a fine job.

And it wasn't the subject matter. It was refreshing to see struggling poor people who aren't Hollywood pretty. Everything about it—upstate New York, living in trailers, the Mohawk reservation, smuggling, illegal immigrants—was a revelation to those of us who live in cities.

So what was the problem? For starters, Courtney Hunt's choices as director didn't impress me. She gave us way too many closeups of the actors' faces. We got the message the first time we saw Leo's weathered and beaten-down face. We didn't need another dozen closeups.

The establishing shots of the frozen river were nice, but there weren't many of these panoramic shots. You know how critics sometimes say a movie's setting is another character in the movie? This is a case where the landscape should've been another character but wasn't. We didn't get enough of an idea about what the borderlands are like.

Insufficient explanations
The main thing that bothered me was the perfunctory storytelling. Things kept happening one-two-three without sufficient explanations.

The driving force in Frozen River is Ray's desire to buy a double-wide trailer. Everything flows from her inability to come up with the final payment. But...I don't buy it. What's wrong with the existing trailer? It seems comfortable enough. If the family needs to move, what about getting an apartment in town? Ray's husband is an alcoholic and a gambler who's left. In that kind of unstable environment, should you be sinking every cent you have into an expensive fixed asset?

The only food in the house is popcorn and Tang. The family is close to going hungry. In that kind of situation, should you really be buying a deluxe trailer? How about some meat and vegetables for the kids so they don't suffer malnutrition?

The older boy TJ wants to help out by getting a job fixing computers after school. Ray adamantly opposes this, saying school is his only concern. But when your family is eating popcorn and Tang, shouldn't you be a little flexible? Millions of kids handle after-school jobs without falling into juvenile delinquency. Ray's family obviously needs all the money it can get.

Ray hasn't been promoted at the dollar store where she works. The youngish manager seems to favor the youngish clerk. But why? Based on what little we see of Ray's work, she's hard-working and conscientious. Why doesn't she go around her manager manager to his manager...or look for another job...or threaten to file an age discrimination lawsuit?

Searching for her husband, Ray drives to the Mohawk bingo hall. Her husband has left his car in the parking lot and taken the bus, perhaps to Atlantic City. Okay, but why didn't he drive there? Why abandon the car in the parking lot, unlocked, with the keys on the front seat?

Ray leaves the unlocked car with the keys in it and goes into the bingo hall. Lila Littlejohn (Misty Upham) happens to find the car and drives off. Ray follows her in her car through snow-covered paths to Lila's trailer. Lila apparently doesn't notice the car on her tail. Or if she does, she doesn't pull over and confront Ray. Instead she leads Ray to her trailer home.

Here's a tip for would-be car thieves. When a crazy white woman in another car immediately begins chasing you over hill and dale, something's probably gone wrong. You probably won't get away with your theft.

More undermotivated actions
I could go on. Lila convinces Ray to help her smuggle immigrants. Lila also can't see too well but won't get glasses because they make her car-sick. But later she gets glasses and says she's given up smuggling. There's no explanation for either change of heart.

Lila's husband died in a smuggling accident. Her mother-in-law "stole" Lila's baby boy right out of the hospital. Lila says the tribal police won't get involved in a domestic dispute. So why not steal the baby back? Or call the FBI, which would have jurisdiction in this case, and report her mother-in-law as a kidnapper? It's hard to imagine that a close-knit rural community would let one woman steal another's baby.

Rather than fix computers behind his mother's back, TJ decides to pull a phone scam. He calls up an old lady and tells her she's won a lottery if she pays a processing fee. She asks if he takes credit cards and he says yes. Why? What can a teenager do with a card number but no physical card, expiration date, security code, or signature? Besides, the guy with the deluxe trailer wants cash, not credit.

On their third smuggling trip, Ray and Lila take a young couple from Pakistan. Ray doesn't know where Pakistan is, but she feels the couple may be terrorists. She throws their bag out of the car without checking its contents. So she's never heard of Pakistan, but she knows that someone from Pakistan is a potential terrorist?

When the police get wind of the smuggling operation, we're told they want to arrest only one of the two smugglers—to send a message. Why? Why wouldn't the police want to arrest both of them? Breaching homeland security is a serious offense, so why not make an example of Ray and Lila?

I could go on. The point is that this constant wondering about what was happening on the screen took me out of the movie. I couldn't suspend my disbelief and simply enjoy things. So I didn't find the story as gripping or moving as others have.

Hunt made a short version of this film first and then expanded it into a full-length movie. I'd say it shows. A lot of the plot elements seem a bit hastily conceived, as if they were afterthoughts. It feels as though Hunt tacked them onto the core story rather than integrated them from the beginning.

Despite these complaints, Frozen River isn't a bad movie. It's just not as good as a movie like Imprint (sorry, James Lujan). Rob's rating: 7.5 of 10.

Related links
The best Indian movies

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Original text and pictures © copyright 2008 by Robert Schmidt.

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