Frozen River (US 2008)

Misty Upham and Melissa Leo in Frozen River.

Misty Upham and Melissa Leo in Frozen River.

This was a riveting movie to watch, well-written and directed by Courtney Hunt (a first time feature filmmaker at 44). I found it also to be disturbing in several different ways.

Frozen River is a genuinely independent film made for less than a million dollars (raised from business acquaintances). Developed from an earlier short film, it was sold to Sony Classics before Sundance – where it won a major prize. The central character is Ray (Melissa Leo), a working-class woman living with her 5 and 15 year-old sons in a decrepit trailer. Her husband, a compulsive gambler, has just absconded with the money saved up for an upgrade to a superior home. Ray sets off to find him between shifts at the local discount store. The trail leads to a Bingo Hall on the Mohawk territory that spans the US-Canadian border. When she sees her husband’s car being driven away by a young Mohawk woman, she gives chase. The upshot is that Ray is sucked into the ‘people trafficking’ across the border which has replaced cigarette smuggling as an earner for some members of the Mohawk community.

As well as gambling and people trafficking, the narrative takes on issues of parental control and the deprivations of trailer park life. It certainly isn’t Hollywood, but still there is a kind of happy ending. In a way this was a relief after a couple of harrowing incidents in the story when I could hardly bear to look at the screen since tragedy seemed inevitable. I’m still trying to work out if this was a cop-out or whether I have read aspects of the film wrongly. As we’ve noted in other posts, it is rare to get contemporary American films that deal with working-class life. It’s even rarer to get films like this written and directed by a woman and with a central focus on two women from outside the norm of Hollywood leads. There has been lots of (justifiable) praise for Melissa Leo, but I would want to also praise Misty Upham as the Mohawk woman. I’m very supportive of the film in lots of ways, but . . .

The problem I have with the film and especially with the happy ending is really to do with the politics of American working class culture. I confess that as a middle-class European it’s sometimes hard to fathom. Let’s begin with the central family in the film. There is some interesting discussion on IMDB as to whether this is a middle-class family brought down in the world by the husband’s gambling. There is generally a view that a ‘poor’ family shouldn’t be watching a large rented TV and eating junk food. Against this, Ray is shown to be a mother who wants her children to go to school and do well (i.e. she isn’t ‘irresponsible’). I wasn’t sure about the actors (real cousins) who played the two sons – they seemed very articulate and ‘well-educated’. So, am I falling into a trap in expecting a stereotypical portrayal of kids who live in a trailer park? To be fair, the film offers believable, non-stereotypical police officers and other characters, so perhaps I ought to read the children as they are written. I can’t say too much about my major concern with the film without giving away the plot, so, SPOILERS ahead, I’m afraid.

Ray is driven by the need to find the money for the new house – in the couple of days before Christmas Eve. Driving illegal workers over the frozen river and across Mohawk land evades the immigration controls. She’s seemingly unconcerned by the Chinese in her boot (trunk) but freaks out when a Pakistani couple turn up, yelling that she doesn’t know what a ‘Paki’ is (the term used by the Mohawk woman) and then saying that she doesn’t know where Pakistan is and losing it completely because the couple might be carrying bombs or something. Is this what American working mothers are like? A woman who seems rational at other times can’t distinguish between frightened illegal immigrants and an Al Quaeda cell? Or is this just my false perspective?

Following this, Ray acts quite callously and only seems to care about her kids’ Christmas presents. Not so terrible perhaps, but we now have her classed as suspicious of other cultures – which goes against the believable portrayal of the two women, white and Native American who are slowly drawing together after beginning on a level of mutual animosity. Lila, the Mohawk woman is an interesting character, streetwise but not as assertive as Ray at first. She also has a small child who she has ‘lost’ to her mother-in-law after her husband’s death. In a possibly metaphorical move, she eventually buys some glasses to improve her poor short-range vision. The ending of the film sees Ray make a sacrifice which effectively ‘saves’ Lila and her child. It was this volte-face by the woman who could treat illegals as terrorists that I found a bit hard to take. I’m mindful of Nick Broomfield’s film Ghosts in which Chinese illegals drown in Morecambe Bay when their gangmaster allows them to work in unsafe conditions. People smuggling is often a dangerous business that ends in tears – see our discussion of Farewell China. The film seems to focus on the white-Native American relationship, but to ignore the illegals who somehow seem less than human (they have no dialogue as such). I’m interested to hear what Americans think about this aspect of the film – and Canadians, who are also ‘absent’ apart from the Quebecois who organises the smuggling. Wouldn’t all these illegals be better off taking their chance in Canada?

Info on Courtney Hunt was gleaned from an interview on the Huffington Post and the film’s press kit available here.

It’s great that Melissa Leo should get all this attention. I’ve been a fan since Homicide – Life on the Street. In this movie she looks like a real person and not a movie star. Writer-director Hunt is adamant about her commitment to showing a working-class woman on screen. According to an interview in New York magazine, Hunt herself was brought up by a single mother and took her early inspiration from Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.

I hope the film does well – and creates discussion about race and class in contemporary America.


  1. Just Another Film Buff

    I found the movie remarkable and thought Leo could well become the next Gena Rowlands… Well…

    Gran Torino, The Visitor and Frozen River, for me make up the most refreshing set of films that truly are AMERICAN, with a clear identity…

    P.S: You gave a spoiler alert to this movie and also gave away teh spoiler of Ghosts I think… :)


    • venicelion

      Ghosts is based on a true story, so the ending is ‘given’ to a certain extent, although I take your point that people outside the UK won’t necessarily know that. I think we have to be able to discuss endings in order to comment on narratives and so I hope giving a spoiler warning is a reasonable strategy.

      It would be good to start a debate around the three titles you mention. They all have something to say about race and class. Sounds like a course for an enterprising US university?


      • Just Another Film Buff

        Oh yes… I feel all these films in a way try to blend its observations with elements of classical storytelling. I felt that all these three films are successful because they take the multi culturalism as a reality of their worlds, not the issue.

        As Eastwood’s film suggests, it is a process of accepting the fact that we all are indeed different and it is just futile to be oversensitive to things, trying to be diplomatically correct and being too rigid about the ideas of xenophobia.

        Frozen River is my favorite of the three since it deals with a single (yet is valid in general I guess) American mom with her own objective and obstacles. She does not want to talk about illegal migration, she does not want to overtly break the laws. She just wants to get through life within these facets. Again it is noteworthy that multiculturalism becomes a part of teh film’s environment and not its drama.

        And the most moving one is clearly The Visitor. May be Jenkins steals our attention all the time and there are glithes in its scripts, but the film does show how there is a chear distance between theory on multiculturalism and reality. The professor is an expert about the problems in the far east, its politics and its culture, but is (as he is always hesitant to call himself) far from being an expert. This character has to be one of the most finely written characters of 2007. And Jenkins performance somehow reminded me of Hackman’s in The Conversation.

        The Visitor faltered with its climax though with its romanticism. I would love to know your thoughts on the other two films…


  2. Hunterwali

    You raise some interesting points here; it’s been a while since I’ve seen the film, and I’ve not had enough coffee to make my thinking or subsequent prose lucid, but I’ll give it a go:

    * The television makes sense. I feel a bit of a dick, being both scholarly and referencing people I have known in the states, but I’ve seen this seemingly strange contradiction. I assisted in calculating mortgage affordability in SW Baltimore only to see too many people caught up in debt to their SUVs and major home entertainment systems. I’ve also known people who were kicked out of their homes for non-payment, but had the wide-screen televisions and flash automobiles. I wonder if this brings in important questions about both an American economy and an American myth of access and promise. There are issues of expectation and resentment that could be teased out here.

    * I think that if we’re looking at contradictions in the American myth, Ray’s seemingly irrational response makes sense (not perhaps for its realism, but for its symbolic expression). That is, it calls attention to the selectivity of applying this myth.

    * I know you’re looking at this in the context of Canada and US, but I wonder if you shouldn’t also introduce the issue of sovereign territories of Native Americans, because it is this seemingly liminal and indigenous zone that aids in the smuggling. Everyone there is on Indian land, and yet it is managed and trafficked by many intersecting and outside forces.

    * A pedantic note followed by a thought: There is a tendency to conflate people smuggling with human trafficking. Although both can involve movement, trafficking refers to the exploitation of people after movement (which can be within national borders). That said, this film is very much placing this idea of material movement/exchange within a wider global economy. I find something elegant in the notion that Ray must smuggle in Chinese in order to afford her new double wide which is manufactured in China. Taking this into account alongside the issue of borders, nations, unseen people and unseen nations, this film is illustrating aspects of (economic) globalization.


    • venicelion

      Thanks so much for this which certainly helps to get some debate going. The point about the the symbolism of the consumer goods is very important. It does, I think, make it difficult to judge how to balance a drive for social realism with a presentation of symbolic desires. I’m sure that the ‘big TV symbol’ is also an issue in UK films and TV, but not the car so much.

      I take the point about the sovereign territories which I agree with and should have foregrounded more. And yes, I have slipped into equating ‘trafficking’ with ‘smuggling’. I’m not sure if your definition is a legal one, but it certainly makes sense. My point was that the people being ‘smuggled’ were being treated as ‘commodities’ and that this was largely because of cultural and ethnic ‘difference’. It is suggested that the reason for Ray’s treatment of them is that they don’t speak English and that they conform to her notion of a dangerous ‘other’. Educated Europeans or Asians who speak good English wouldn’t perhaps be forced to take such desperate measures.


      • Hunterwali

        A few additional (and still muddy) points:

        * Yes, the trafficking/smuggling thing is based on legal definition.

        * When noting the symbolic value of the television, it was not to deny the realism (as experience has demonstrated), just that it worked regardless. By no means does its presence diminish the possibility of social realism.

        * I am still wrestling with how to address your question, ‘Is this what American working mothers are like?’ which strikes me as deeply problematic. Ray is not some Brechtian model of a class/character. She is written to be a person in a particular situation, and demanding that she fit a very broadly conceived type (American working class) does not sit well. Class is an operative category, but ‘American’ is simply too broad a brush stroke– the US is a large country with region differences that could be considered significant. I’ll hold aside commentary on assumptions that Ray can also serve a catch all representation of mothers or working mothers.

        Perhaps, the question to ask is if this sort of characterization rings true, regarding hewing to an internal, diegetic logic, as well as to a broader social context.

        As for whether or not a person could fall from middle class so brutally: yes. It is absolutely scary how people can fall when there are no social safety nets, and when a single medical emergency can leave a person tens of thousands of dollars in debt (and I speak here of a minor emergency– appendicitis, for example).

        * Finally, I’ve been thinking about the issue of multiculturalism that you raised. This is part of any discourse of nation in an era characterised by migration to be sure. However, the intensive focus on that alone strikes me as singularly European. In Europe, there is such anxiety about the state of national character in the face of migration, the formation of the EU, the collapse of communism, etc. One could definitely (and rightly) argue for similar anxieties in the US, but with a significant difference: The myth of America/American identity states that it is a country of immigrants (which is why the native presence in Frozen River is particularly provocative). The hyphenate identity is a given in the US. (Apologies for focusing the North American discussion on US and omitting Canada, btw.) At the same time, there are numerous hypocrisies in terms of new policy, or in terms of which immigrants are acceptable. This makes for a substantively different way of teasing out these questions. Frozen River, it seems to me, touches on these in part.

        (As full disclosure, I live and work in Europe, it’s just that I’ve also lived and worked in the US).


      • venicelion

        Hmm! Perhaps I should put my cards on the table. My interest is not to determine whether Frozen River tells a story that is either rooted in realism or is in some ways a representation of American working class culture – even a specific regional segment of that culture. What I am concerned about is how American Cinema deals with such stories. As noted in an earlier comment, it is interesting that Frozen River now sits alongside The Visitor and Grand Torino (and other films I haven’t seen) as films that in different ways engage with race and class – i.e. issues of immigration and the response of figures in the host communities. There have been such films before of course, but these three have all gained a relatively high profile. In the case of Eastwood picture, the film has been highly successful while the other two films have attracted critical attention and strong arthouse box-office figures.

        I’ve recently come across Ryan Gilbey’s Sight & Sound review (which I hadn’t seen before I wrote the original posting). He takes more or less the same line, though he is much more cynical than I am and I’m not sure about his Loachian analogy but that is for another argument. (He does point out that the Chinese and Pakistanis are effectively exploited as they have to work to pay off the Triads who organised their passage, so this is trafficking, I think even if the legal case might not stand.)

        Why are we so interested in these films? Mainly because Hollywood (and I’m afraid most of the ‘American Independent’) filmmakers have ignored blue-collar communities for the last thirty years. Much as I criticised the Eastwood film, it did at least seem to revive an interest in what was happening in a forgotten land.

        When presented with Frozen River, I don’t have expectations about Ray as a Brechtian figure and I am interested in the nuances of her character. I’m trying to make sense of the narrative information that has been provided and the stumbling block is her reaction to the Chinese and Pakistanis. I’m trying to imagine how a European filmmaker would handle the same narrative. I don’t think that the illegals would be denied the dialogue as they are in Frozen River and I don’t think that the central character would be allowed to behave like that without then experiencing remorse to a much greater extent.

        I suppose my main concern is that I wasn’t aware of what I would call a racist discourse in the film being raised in discussions about a film that featured prominently in the last Awards season. This suggests that US audiences simply don’t see the issue in the same way. I take your point about American and European differences over questions of national identity and ‘multiculturalism’. Perhaps I’m just out of date, but national identity doesn’t really concern me that much, but fighting racism certainly does.


  3. keith1942

    Two points on Frozen River.
    On the the class of the characters, a lot of critics use working class and middle class in a very loose fashion, as does the political establishment.
    Both the two main female characters rely completely on wage labour for themselves and their families. Trafficking is also wage labour. So they are either working class or lumpen proletariat, I incline to the fomer as they are not presented as criminal, rather falling into crime.
    The other aspect of the film which is intersting is the way it uses christian myths. It is set around Christmas: we have parents and a child forced to seek shelter at a motel: we have a resurrection on the ice: and, of course, we have redemption. I think these mythic aspects are why parts of the plot, like the ending, seem less realistic.


    • venicelion

      I can honestly say that I never thought about the Christian myths while I was watching the film, but you are obviously right Keith. But it seems rather an odd kind of redemption, all the same?


  4. keith1942

    Re redemption. I think that one way this differs from conversion is in suffering as a form of atonement for sins committed. In this sense the redpetion sets up the films closure.
    There we have a reconstituted family, and what I find intersting is that it is suggested that it will be a family headed by two women.


  5. keith1942

    I can see the point Venicelion is making about the immigrant characters and their treatment in the film. However, I am not convinced that there is a problem with US films that is less apparent in European. In fact there is a long tradition of refusing a voice to the other, like immigrants, in both film cultures. It was one of the points that arose in discussion over the recent arthouse success Waltz with Bashir.

    Certainly the cycle of films that deal with US adventures overseas are seriously problematic in this sense.

    In Frozen River it seems that the trafficked immigrants are silent because they are the recipients of the US characters’ guilt and mercy. I think that type of silence is different from one where the characters are involved in the primary conflict of the film and yet denied a voice.


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