Thursday, January 8, 2009

Review: Frozen River

Frozen River
Dir. Courtney Hunt
Year: 2008
Aus Rating: MA15+
Running Time: 97mins

It's a shame that Courtney Hunt's Frozen River is so good. It's unfortunate because now I will most likely be incredibly disappointed when this debut director falls between the cracks of the lead performance she helped create. Much like Kimberley Pierce, who took nine years to return after Boys Don't Cry, and Patty Jenkins, who has yet to direct another motion picture after Monster in 2003, Hunt's film is primarily getting attention for it's lead performance.

These three films do indeed have more in common with each than a mere powerful central female performance. Most importantly, all three have such an incredible sense of place, all revolving around the ubiquitous themes of woe in Small Town, USA. Whether it be the murky grotesqueness in the late 1980s of Monster (one of my very favourite films of that year), the endless horizons of the bigoted country town of Boys Don't Cry or the snow-covered regions of Frozen River, each of the films makes the landscape a vital part of the film. Without it there is no real understanding of the films or their characters. Hunt's opening shots are of iced-over rivers, muddy stretches of road and lands casually dotted with trailers all covered by gray clouds and it immediately sets a tone. One rich with texture and intrigue.

In the northern border region of New York state we meet Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo) whose husband has skipped town with the money they were to use to purchase their new double-wide home. Scant of cash and in need of more than the part time wage the shopping mart provides her with she begins to ferry illegal immigrants over the border after an encounter with a young Mohawk woman (Misty Upham). Sounds bleak, but it's done in a similar way to the aforementioned films that really works. The final act effectively works as a thriller, but not in the traditional sense of the word and it ends in a way you wouldn't expect even if you see the general idea coming from the opening scenes (I did, so I imagine many others will too).

As for Melissa Leo, who has certainly been keeping herself busy lately, will surely have "broken out" after this and it's hard not to see why. While not as violently explosive as Charlize Theron or brutally moving as Hilary Swank, she feels equally as evocative as the desperate but not dispirited Ray. Upham is affecting in moments and Charlie McDermott is impressive as Leo's teenage son. I, too, thought the treatment of the Native American storyline was well-done. It was fascinating to me as somebody who knows almost nothing about this culture to see it so thoroughly portrayed with what I assume was respect and it's yet another vital contributor to the film's success.

Frozen River isn't as downbeat and depressing as it may appear, honestly. I'd hazard a guess and say this film isn't anywhere near as grim as others may like to paint it as, actually, thanks to Hunt's intuitiveness. It is a tough watch at times, sure, but it is also so powerfully acted and skillfully made - Reed Morano's cinematography and the minimal score by Peter Golum and Shahzad Ismaily need special mention - that you forget about all that and instead focus of the impeccably made film beneath. Frozen River is a very strong film and one that felt like a breath of fresh air in a year that has felt distinctively unimpressive and been-there-seen-that. A great story tell-told, is what I say. A-


Paul Martin said...

Watching Frozen River yesterday (with none other than Mr. S. Popcorn) and then The Wrestler today, I was struck by the common themes and, to a certain extent, the similar aesthetics. While I much prefer Aronofsky's effort, Frozen River is certainly an impressive effort.

It's interesting the take you've made on the film. I didn't really relate it to Monster or Boys Don't Cry (I liked them both a lot), but I think it's a fair connection. For me, the film immediately recalls Kelly Reichardt's Old Joy, and hey, another female director. The connection? Mostly the emotional rawness of the film, the understated score, and even the use of car radio (though there was no political undertone to it's use in Frozen River like it was in Old Joy; it was more about creating a sense of place).

I think the Nova should be commended for supporting films like this one. They're screening it exclusively, and it's the sort of thing that, in the absence of the Lumiere, we pretty much only get to see at MIFF now. For those that support diversity in cinema, get along to this when you can. It's release date is 19 Feb.

Glenn said...

Which is very strange, considering Melissa Leo is right on the cusp of an Oscar nomination (she was nominated for a Screen Actors Guild award, which is a huge boost) and, as these things go, it's been quite well received.

I, unfortunately, have not seen Reichardt's film - as you are aware, I want to see Wendy & Lucy though - so I could not compare, but it's always good to here what other people took from a movie.

This movie just continued to improve in my mind all day after we saw it, Paul. Hasn't dimmed one iota. Such a great film.