12 September 2008

At the movies: Frozen River.

I don't envy how this pitch meeting must have gone. 'It's a movie about two poor and disenfranchised women who find themselves smuggling illegal immigrants across the Canadian border and a dangerous river into lives of indentured servitude. Nobody has any moral awakenings. Nobody gets an unrealistic happy ending. And it's also at Christmastime." But thankfully, someone listened, and the end result is one of the more quietly devastating films of the year.

Ray (Melissa Leo) and Lila (Misty Upham) are great and uncompromising characters. They're both mothers, and they're both fighting their way through life, put upon by how things are in a way that is relatable but not too easy to identify with; these are women who make difficult choices that cannot be justified by any rational person, and yet there's a very seductive pragmatism at work in the script that lets us follow them into their course of action even while all that is decent screams out "No."

The mood is bleak and wintry, and the ragged DV photography adds to that effect. High quality images of any kind would seem out of place in this poverty-stricken upstate New York milieu, and Leo and Upham both approach their parts without a shred of vanity or any specific agenda. Both women can be rather unlikable, but never really unsympathetic, even as their choices grow harder and harder to accept.

I find Tattoos on characters in film are often distracting (though sometimes necessary to the plot), meant as empty signifiers or used as instant street cred (or as a point of mockery). Here, we are allowed a couple of glimpses of Ray's morning rituals, and her tattoos, couple with her mottled skin, reads like a silent journal of betrayal and the passage of time.

We're given the same as we watch Lila perched in a tree, tossing food to a large dog to keep it from hassling her, watching the home of a family. Eventually, we learn its significance, and eventually we are able to find context for who Lila is and what she does. But for that moment, early on in the film, we watch her sit in a tree and watch over some family's evening through the front plate glass window, and there's nothing else in the world that hits so hard.

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