August 29, 2008

Taking It Home: Frozen River

The face of soul-crushing desperation...

I can't remember the exact scene, but at some point in Frozen River I thought, "Man, this is for real." It may have been when Ray (Melissa Leo, above) asked her supervisor for more hours to work, or when she served her kids another meal of popcorn and Tang, or when she pulled a gun on Lila (Misty Upham, below left), who was refusing to return her stolen car. I was struck by the utter desperation of these characters, and it evoked a certain familiar feeling in me, one of gutwrenching empathy and helplessness. Though I haven't been to the New York - Canadian border where the film is set, and I've been blessed in my life not to have experienced that desperation to this point, I've still observed it firsthand in this country, at the San Diego - Tijuana border, for example, or in the Mississippi Delta, in the streets of South Boston, in San Francisco's Tenderloin District, or right here in Minneapolis. People in dire circumstances faced with decisions that I've never had to consider: shelter or food, heat or water, school or safety, lunch or dinner.

See this desperation enough and you develop an immediate recognition of that feeling. Several films this year already have triggered those thoughts in me, including Blindsight, Chop Shop, La Misma Luna, The Betrayal, and Up The Yangtze. While Frozen River is not a documentary, it leaves no doubt that there is a very real story behind it. Sadly, in an interview with Minneapolis Star Tribune critic Colin Covert, writer/director Courtney Hunt reported that following a New York screening of the film, someone approached her and said, "But people don't really live like that."

Uh, yeah, they do.

And the ignorance on the part of all of us who deny that fact is staggering. I can't judge you for standing idly by while these people struggle next to you, but I can sure get upset if you plainly deny that their struggle exists. No matter where you live (with a few exceptions), we're way too interconnected at this point to walk around pretending like what's happening in one place has no affect on what's happening in another. From taxes to gas prices to housing density to crime to food shortages, there is hardly an issue that exists in its own little bubble. I'm not trying to be cynical and preachy here, but it still astounds me that we can so easily overlook the connections between our lives and those of the people down the street or across the ocean from us. Frozen River perfectly illustrates this illusion of difference; Ray and Lila are basically living the same lives in two "different worlds" that are only separated by a few miles.

Does Frozen River offer any easy answers to the questions it raises about such topics as illegal immigration, poverty, broken families, gambling addiction, human trafficking, consumerism and the sovereignty of American Indian tribes? No, and I don't believe that was Courtney Hunt's objective. Like Chop Shop, this is cinéma vérité simply giving us an intimate look at the people living these lives around us. In that sense it's quite a success, made even more impressive by the fact that this is Hunt's first film.

Although Frozen River won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance earlier this year, I expect the only awards in its future will be for Melissa Leo and Courtney Hunt, and they will be deserved. Aside from that, it will probably fade into obscurity along with its peers (Chop Shop, Half Nelson, etc.) as raw, incisive accounts of contemporary America that most people would rather continue ignoring. In my opinion, it would be to our collective detriment to do so.

What did you take home?


  1. Daniel, I have to say, your piece here about this film is the first thing I've read that truly convinced me that I should see this. Very interesting. Thanks.

  2. Fine piece, especially in your observations about poverty ... nothing at all wrong with that. We tend to take a moral distance from the films we talk about, and I'm not sure that's always a good thing. We assume that movies are morally neutral by abstracting ourselves and talking about the technical stuff.

    I am about two-thirds of the way through "Satantango," and if you want to see "soul-crushing desperation" ...

  3. I just cannot wait to see this one.

  4. Daniel -

    Thanks for this compassionate review. Now I want to see "Frozen River" even more than I did before. I hope it finds the audience it deserves.

    On a completely different note (Forgive my transition to comparative frivolity here), I have tagged you for the "Other" 12-movie meme. Details are here:

  5. Thanks, everybody. I'm really glad people responded positively to this. There are a fair amount of people who start rolling their eyes at reactions like mine. Sorry to say, this might not be the place for you then, because that's how I meet my "tagline" above.

    In any case, I didn't even mean for this to be as much of a recommendation to see Frozen River as it ended up being. It's not a perfect movie, but an important one.

    Satantango played here a few months ago, Rick - in a theater - but I didn't make it. Still on my list.

    Thanks, Pat. That definitely looks like a challenge! I'll see if I can meet it...

  6. When I first heard about this film, it was only that Melissa Leo was in it. I am a huge fan, so I determined to go. After I heard the subject matter, I went into the undecided camp and I still don't know if I'll see it. I have a family member, a single mother of three grade-school kids, who is always scrambling to make ends meet. We're looking after the kids this weekend, so she can make some money working around the clock at a Harley-Davidson rally. I went to a party on given by reservation Indians, and I have to be honest enough to admit that their behavior - looking for anything to get wasted on and fighting after they were so blind drunk they couldn't reason - repulsed me.

    Yes, these lives are real. I just don't know if I can bear to watch another group of desperate people on a movie screen.

  7. My final judgement on the film was less acceptable than yours, and the execution was cliched. But I know I am in the minority and I also know the film was still riveting. I like the device you used here, "What did you take home?" and I think you made a strong case for its "cinema verite" styled realism. I do think the performances were striking, without question

  8. Marilyn, if you like Leo, you'll probably want to see this.

    Her character is in a desperate situation, but the wonder of it is her will and tenacity to fight her way through it. And it's a very good perfmance.

  9. Craig - I expect nothing less from her. She is simply one of the best actresses working today. That's why I hesitate. She'll really make me feel it.

  10. Thanks for sharing that, Marilyn. This will definitely resonate differently for each person, and I guess as long as you accept that "these lives are real", there may not be much more you can get out of it. Not having seen Leo in much else, I was really impressed. Craig describes her character well, and any award buzz she's received has been deserved in my opinion.

    Thanks, Sam. Like I said, I'm recommended it more for its content than for its execution. I've labeled it with the "b's", and I have to admit the ending didn't satisfy me in every way. But that aside, the story and the acting have a palpable urgency to them.

  11. That Tenderloin is no joke. That's the first place I ever saw someone just walking around smoking crack. In fact, almost every time I end up in the Tenderloin I see someone smoking crack. Crazy area.

  12. The most jarring thing for me when I go through there is the odor of urine. It's just so much more pronounced than anywhere else. Must be something about the hills and flow of SF.

    That's pretty disgusting. But hey, it is real.

  13. Oh man, that's totally true. The most urine soaked part of town is down on Market, around Civic Center. What the hell is that about?

  14. I really don't know. Just adds to the character of SF I guess - all of these old neighborhoods that are very different but smashed up right next to each other.


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