Given mainstream Hollywood's fondness for glamorous actors and happy endings, it is a wonder 2008's Frozen River's lead actress Melissa Leo got an Oscar nomination for Best Actress and first-time writer-director Courtney Hunt a nod for Best Original Screenplay. Surprising none of its fans, both women went home empty-handed. I hope a similar fate doesn't befall Debra Granik's exceptional Winter's Bone, which shares an investment in working-class female protagonists forced to circumnavigate the law and is the best movie I've seen this year.
There should be no reason why the Academy would ignore this small, remarkable film. It's a gripping story about two women risking their lives to smuggle illegal immigrants from Quebec to upstate New York. For their roadway, they use the St. Lawrence River. Frozen River was released a year after Ramin Bahrani's Chop Shop and the same year as Erick Zonca's Julia and Kelly Reichardt's Wendy and Lucy. All garnered considerable critical interest for their ingenuous depictions of working-class characters at the waxing of America's most recent economic recession. Potential concern over championing female criminals notwithstanding, it seems like the Academy would take the bait. The movie would just need a larger promotional machine and Julia Roberts slumming in a trailer park.
Frozen River originated out of a short and was shot on location in less than a month during oppressively cold weather. Reportedly made for under a million dollars, many crew members were called upon to play minor characters. Leo had to do all of her own driving because the budget didn't have room for a stunt driver. She also insisted upon doing her own make-up, believing that her character Rae Eddy's mascara would clump.
This attention to character detail defines the heroic efforts of its director, a law school graduate who comes from a working-class background, and the principal actors. In a perfect world, Leo would have shared her nomination with Misty Uptham. She plays Eddy's professional partner Lila Littlewolf, a Mohawk bingo parlor employee who involves Eddy in smuggling after she steals her car. Apparently Uptham cut her hair and gained 30 pounds for the role. This decision makes sense in the context of the film. Littlewolf is a recent widow who lost the father of her child when the ice collapsed during a run. She gave birth to their son at around the same time, but he was taken away by her mother-in-law following her husband's death. Unable to nurse her infant son, she has held onto the pregnancy weight.
Though they meet through unfortunate circumstances, Eddy and Littlewolf share a kinship as economically-strapped single mothers striving to provide for their families. Littlewolf is trying to get her son back, but doesn't have the means to support him. Eddy's husband has a gambling problem and robbed his family and fled just before Christmas. She also has two young sons she tries to support with her job at a discount store where her much-younger boss won't offer her a promotion after two years of service. Her older son T.J. (Charlie McDermott) has to help raise his kid brother Ricky (James Reilly), a task he meets with the resentment he harbors toward his father that he takes out on his harried mother. Just as Eddy gets little leeway from the male figures in her life, Littlewolf is stymied by the Mohawk tribe's matriarchal structure. Her mother-in-law's coerced guardianship is honored by the female head of the tribal council, who blocks any appeal process with bureaucracy.
Both women also clearly need each other. On one potentially tragic run, the pair mistake a bundle containing a Pakistani couple's baby for a duffel bag they can't load and discard it. They set out to retrieve him, suspecting that he might be dead when they find him. Potentially projecting her own loss onto the boy, Littlewolf, a passenger because of her poor eyesight, sees little hope in reviving him. Driver Eddy insists that she hold him and try to warm him up, noting that they can't give him to his parents cold. Their efforts work, though Littlewolf credits providence.
In addition to relying upon Eddy's eyesight, Littlewolf also takes advantage of Eddy's whiteness. To the local police onto smuggling activities on Mohawk land, all people of color are suspects. Thus racial profiling, as we continue to witness in places like Arizona, is commonplace. Eddy's race helps the pair negotiate being pulled over by State Trooper Finnerty (Michael O'Keefe) during a run. The next morning, he notifies her of his suspicions about the woman in the passenger seat. This is a scene that, to the filmmaker's and actors' credit, contains no romantic subtext. In a lesser movie, Finnerty would be Eddy's redemptive love interest.
Their operation falls apart during what fans of heist movies anticipate as the failed final run. Eddy, noting her race and clean legal record, takes the wrap for Littlewolf and anticipates a four-month sentence. She calls upon Littlewolf to buy a new mobile home with the money she saved and look after her children until her return. Following these exchanges, she reclaims her child and sets about cultivating a new life for herself. It provides the movie with only superficial resolution but suggests a life that, whether through circumstance or acquired friendship, will continue to include Eddy.