Ray Eddy's very name sounds tough, and upon first appearance the name seems to fit. The scraggly hair, worn-out clothes, and lined face suggest a woman who's been on the ropes and knows them well. While ostensibly married, she's effectively a single mom; her deadbeat husband is a compulsive gambler who has fled his home and family just before Christmas. As the holidays approach her threadbare household, she must support her two sons (one a bitter, shaggy-haired teen, the other a sweet little kid barely out of toddlerhood) on the income earned from a dead-end part-time retail job. Meanwhile, her double-wide trailer, long dreamed of and half paid for, will not be delivered until she's paid the full deposit. Ray's toughness transcends the stoic - she also carries a gun around and isn't afraid to pull it on the sullen Mohawk woman Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham) who has stolen Mr. Eddy's car and parked it on the local reservation, a patch of land that spans the border between the Canada and New York state. When the young Native American offers Ray a job of dubious legality as payback, Ray accepts and is soon engaged in a criminal enterprise ferrying illegal refugees (or contraband slaves?) across that very border.
Yet despite all these signs of resolution and determination, Ray - the main character in writer/director Courtney Hunt's wintry, close-to-the-ground independent feature - isn't so very tough after all. Her petulant young boss easily deflects requests for a promotion; the delivery man remains unmoved by her excuses for the deposit; her adolescent son pouts and defies her at every turn. Lila has her own motivation for taking Ray on as a partner, and Ray herself - while unafraid to fight back against Lila's pushy intimidation - tentatively keeps returning for more smuggling jobs. She needs the money and Lila has the connections. What's more, throughout all these experiences, Ray's face betrays not just a grim weariness but a flickering sensitivity and a cautious intelligence. There's a hardness to the appearance of Melissa Leo (who earned an Oscar nomination for this performance), but also a softness around her eyes and the corners of her mouth, betraying a wounded soul beneath the occasionally ill-mannered exterior.
The larger film is likewise warm-hearted beneath its frosty, grungy surface - perhaps too much so. Still, it's hard to resent Hunt's empathy and good will towards her characters. Try as she might to follow through on the movie's initially bleak existential vision, Hunt can't help throwing them a bone from time to time, getting them out of jams and rewarding them with lucky breaks and narrative slaps on the wrist. The movie even closes on an embarrassing and completely unnecessary note of reconciliation, in which Ray's teenage son apologizes to an old woman he scammed - as if even the possibility of the boy's callousness had to be happily washed away. Of course, some relief (however misapplied) may be in order after the dread and despair Hunt manages to dredge up for an hour and a half - there are times when you are absolutely certain something awful is about to happen, and often you're quite right. (At other times, the dread remains unresolved yet undispersed, hanging in the air like the smoke after Ray's teen son accidentally starts a fire outside the trailer.)
Shot on HD in real locations, the movie is initially gritty and grim but as the plot gets moving, we realize this "true-to-life" independent is also something of a thriller - and a pretty effective one at that. The run-ins with a nasty Quebecois smuggler, Ray's slow realization of what this business entails, and the runs across the titular body of water, are all packed with suspense and tension. The choice of setting is thematically rich, as the Mohawk reservation is a kind of no-man's land - neither U.S. nor Canadian police can trespass on it and in a weird technical way, the smuggling could be construed as free trade (at least that's how Lila initially describes it to Ray). When Ray enters "Indian territory" to retrieve her car she is unknowingly crossing an invisible line and entering a new zone - like the cowboys in old Westerns she has arrived in a place where the rule of law is weak, social constrictions are loosened, and both danger and reward are dramatically amplified.
We don't see much of the reservation community as a physical entity, though we meet a good deal of its inhabitants: what we do see is uninhabited wood and the hostile plain upon which Ray and Lila will make their smuggling runs. The Mohawk reservation, and particularly the frozen river which stand as its portal to the "other side," is a symbolic passageway, an in-between space on which Ray can test the boundaries of her own fortitude and eventually even discover her own compassion (the outcome of this trip into uncharted moral territory is actually a strengthening of Ray's character, though it's admittedly a long time coming). At the same time, while mythologizing the location, Hunt mostly keeps the people humanized and down-to-earth. She has an interest not only in telling her story, but in showing a largely unseen people and their way of life, and she deftly weaves together reportorial observation of the Mohawk population (as well as the rural working-class whites) with entertaining, often tense, storytelling.
That's not to say there aren't weaknesses - characterizations can descend into the obvious, plot quandaries are solved with a little too much ease (particularly a certain matter involving Lila's son), and occasionally a tone of earnestness prevents complete involvement. The acting is a little ropey, a fact exposed by the unpolished aesthetic - even in high-definition, video has the uncanny ability to show up artifice in a performance. And as previously stated, the screenplay tends to wind things up a little too neatly. Yet Frozen River remains a compelling, involving piece of work and an effective feature debut for the 44-year-old Hunt, who studied law at Northeastern before becoming a filmmaker. The movie won several awards, including the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, with Leo's performance invariably the center of discussion. Her work is a good, thoughtful bit of acting, but it's also the evocative sense of place and rich suggestiveness of Hunt's story that make the film worth checking out.