Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Length: 97 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 1080p
Languages: English Dolby TrueHD 5.1
Subtitles: English, English SDH, French
Massena, New York is located along the St. Lawrence River, roughly 400 miles north of New York City. I have never been to Massena, but I have no doubt that it looks pretty much the way it is depicted in Frozen River, a marvelous independent film which features an Oscar-nominated performance by Melissa Leo (for Best Actress in a lead role). For the uninitiated, upstate New York has little in common with New York City or its suburbs. The landscape along the border with Canada is largely flat and bleak. Winters are unremittingly cold and long and the culture is decidedly blue-collar. Life there can be very hard and difficult.
Leo plays Ray Eddy, a middle-aged, married mother of two boys, aged 15 and 5. They live in a shabby trailer on a two-lane highway outside of Massena. One morning, a few days before Christmas, Ray awakens to discover that her husband Troy is gone, along with several thousand dollars which she has saved for the down payment on a brand-new double wide pre-fabricated home. Troy has a gambling problem, and Ray fears that he has taken off for Atlantic City. After wiping away her tears, she scrapes together some lunch money and sends her boys off to school. She assures the younger boy, Ricky, that his father is away on “a business trip” and that he will return. The older son, T.J., knows better and understands the situation, but Ray refuses his offer to drop out of school and get a job.
Massena is adjacent to a Mohawk reservation, so Ray heads there first to see if she can find her husband before he has a chance to gamble away everything. While there is gambling on the reservation, any resemblance to resorts such as Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun is purely coincidental. High rollers have no interest in traveling to remote towns like Massena, so the gambling on the reservation is done in a bingo hall rather than a casino. Ray finds her husband’s car there, but he is long gone on a bus headed for New York City. While Ray is making her inquiries one of the Mohawk bingo hall employees, Lila Littlejohn (Misty Upham, in a performance which rivals Leo’s), sees that the keys have been left in Troy’s car, so she hops in and drives away. Ray observes this and follows Lila onto the reservation, where Lila lives in a trailer which is barely large enough for one person. When Ray demands that Lila return the keys, the young Mohawk woman tells her that she knows someone who will pay $2,000 for the car, no paperwork needed. Ray, who is desperate for money, agrees.
It turns out that Lila has not been entirely candid. Together the women drive through the woods, emerging on the shore of the frozen St. Lawrence River. Lila informs Ray that they have to drive across the river to Canada to consummate the deal. Lila assures Ray that there is nothing to worry about, because she has seen semis successfully navigate across the ice. Once in Canada, Ray discovers that she has not been brought there to sell Troy’s car. Her vehicle is actually needed to smuggle two Asians into the United States. When Ray balks, Lila persuades her that there is no risk – the Mohawk reservation stretches across the river into Canada, and there are no Border Patrol agents on the reservation. All they have to do is drive back across the river, deliver the two illegal aliens to a motel, and split the money. The tribal leaders, it seems, are aware of Lila’s smuggling but generally look the other way. They have, however, instructed the tribe’s used car dealers that they are not to sell Lila a vehicle which would be suitable for smuggling. This requires Lila to depend upon others for transporation.
The two women complete the journey without incident, but then Lila decides that she wants to keep both the car and all of the money. They then get into a fight. Ray manages to keep the keys to the car, but Lila makes off with the cash. Back at her trailer, Ray learns that things are going from bad to worse. There is no food (the boys have to dine on popcorn and Tang), the dealer who is selling the new trailer has told Ray that she will forfeit her $1,500 deposit if she can’t come up with the full down payment, and the Rent To Own store is planning to repossess the family’s television set. With her husband gone, Ray’s income is limited to what she earns as a part-time clerk at the Yankee One Dollar store. Ray has aspirations to become an assistant manager at the store, but after two years there she has not even been able to persuade the manager to put her on full-time.
The situation is more than Ray can bear. She is demoralized, humiliated and desperate. She goes to see Lila and makes a proposition. Ray will help Lila transport illegal aliens across the river if Lila agrees to split the money. The two women do not exactly bond – their respective cultures are so different that friendship seems to be out of the question – but they do begin to realize that they have some things in common. Lila has a young child of her own, but the baby was “stolen” from her by her mother-in-law. The circumstances are a bit murky, but it seems that Lila has been blamed for the death of the boy’s father, and in any event it is plain that her lifestyle is ill-suited to raising a one-year-old by herself.
Ray tells Lila that she will participate in the smuggling only until she has enough money to make her down payment. “I’m not a criminal,” she insists. When she gets close to her goal, she and Lila embark on one final trip across the river, but this time nothing goes according to plan.
There are several scenes in Frozen River where the film could have easily lapsed into melodrama or sentimentality, but first-time writer-director Courtney Hunt never loses her way (she has been nominated for an Academy Award for her original screenplay). The grim life which Ray leads does not lend itself to sappy sentiment. Her aspirations are so modest, and yet so difficult for her to achieve, that there is no need for melodrama. Instead we have a gritty, realistic story about the lengths to which a woman will go to provide for herself and her children.
There is a good chance that you did not see Frozen River in a theater. It had limited distribution and did less than $2.5 million at the box office. However, it got mostly rave reviews and the opportunity to see it on Blu-ray is more than welcome. It boasts superlative acting (including a suitably restrained performance by Michael O’Keefe as a sympathetic police officer), and the location filming in and around Plattsburgh, New York gives the film a heightened sense of realism. The winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, Frozen River is a unique, original drama which is worthy of your time and attention.
The 1.78:1 1080p transfer is excellent. I understand that the movie was made in HD video, and the image is certainly sharp and detailed. The overall color palette is subdued, which is appropriate for action which takes place during cold and gray winter days and nights. Many of scenes take place at night, so the solid black levels and very good shadow detail are welcome. None of the characters in Frozen River are glamorous, but flesh tones are accurate and you can count the lines in Ray’s face as she grieves over the discovery that her husband and her down payment are gone. This is a first-rate Blu-ray transfer in every respect.
There is nothing to complain about with the Dolby TrueHD soundtrack. Nothing here will give your sound system a workout, but the dialogue is crisp and clear and there us nice separation in the evocative original musical soundtrack by Peter Golub and Shahzad Ismaily.
The primary supplement on this Blu-ray disc is an interesting and informative commentary by writer-director Hunt and producer Heather Rae. Hunt originally made Frozen River as a short film, which was shown at the New York Film Festival.
Viewers will be happy to see that Sony has decided to include the original theatrical trailer. Also included are trailers for several Sony Blu-ray releases.
The will be BD-Live features which will be activated on the release date.
The single disc is secured in a standard Blu-ray keepcase.
The Final Analysis
Frozen River is a small film which deserves a wider audience than it got during its theatrical run. The lack of male leads should not fool potential viewers into thinking that this is just another “chick flick.” It is a serious drama which you will not soon forget.
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic DMP-BD50 Blu-ray player
Sharp LC-42D62U LCD display
Yamaha HTR-5890 THX Surround Receiver
BIC Acoustech speakers
Interconnects: Monster Cable
Release Date: February 10, 2009