Who would cross a frozen river,
Doubtful of its permanence,
And brave the temperature extremes?
One lacking lawful common sense
Or thawing frozen hopes and dreams?

Who would risk the little had
To aim for better plans ahead?
Perhaps one with a choice to face,
Where desperation dims the dread
And needed greed can turn to grace.

MPAA rating: R (solely for language)

When you hear stories on the news about illegal activities like smuggling, it’s easy to imagine that the perpetrators are wicked scum-of-the-earth types. While there are undoubtedly plenty of this sort out there, sometimes it takes a movie like Frozen River to put people’s actions in context.

Melissa Leo plays Ray Eddy, a woman just trying to get by on her dollar store paycheck while raising two sons. Intent on leasing a larger mobile home, her plans are devastated by her husband after he disappears with the money to satisfy his gambling addiction. Set against the freezing temperatures of upstate New York, the situation immediately gives the viewer reason to pity Ray’s predicament. From there, her gradual introduction into one leg of a smuggling operation is entirely believable, even as the movie earns its thriller classification with the tension of her potentially being caught. Ray isn’t alone in being sympathetic. Lila Littlewolf (the late Misty Upham), the Mohawk woman who persuades her to help transport illegal immigrants across the Canadian border, has problems of her own with her health, family, and job prospects. While she knows the ins and outs of the smuggling process, she’s no hardened criminal, and the two women form a tenuous but profitable bond.

With all of the debates about illegal immigration in this country, Frozen River thankfully doesn’t have an agenda. Like the Italian film Bicycle Thieves, it doesn’t try to justify the actions of its characters but rather helps us comprehend their motivations. Those scum-of-the-earth types are certainly part of the operation, but Ray and Lila are simply putting their family above the law, which is understandable if not altogether right. Moments of selfishness and concern give way to compassion and maternal solidarity, and though the ending could have benefited from an extra scene of closure, the moral climax plays out as it should. I certainly see why Leo earned a Best Actress nomination (and went on to win for The Fighter), and director Courtney Hunt also received an Oscar nod for her screenplay, which clarifies that not all who break the law have bad intentions.

Rank: List Runner-Up

© 2015 S. G. Liput

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