One of the things I love most about Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River (2008) is its undeniably feminist approach to storytelling. It presents single-motherhood, childcare, access to housing, and related “women’s issues” as problems worthy of narrative treatment within typically male-centric film genres—namely, the “nick of time” thriller and the heist. It argues, convincingly, that everyday issues faced by poor women trying their best to support their families can be the centerpiece of a suspense-packed crime movie. And yes, there are still guns, bad dudes, and car chases.
Sharing both narrative and ambient similarities with Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone (see Kristy Strouse’s May 1st post), Frozen River revolves around a question that only a woman director would ask: Will Ray (Melissa Leo), the film’s single mom protagonist, find the money to make the down payment on a new double-wide trailer by a Christmas Day deadline? Will she or won’t she get the money in time—and what will that take, considering her severely limited resources?
Early in the film, we see signs of these limitations, of obstacles and rare opportunities placed in Ray’s path: an open, empty glove compartment; signs of an absent husband “gambling away the money for our house”; a disaffected kid-boss at Yankee Dollar who sees Ray “as a short-timer” rather than the manager that she needs to be; and most significantly, Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham), a Mohawk Indian woman and fellow single mom who steals Ray’s car before becoming her business partner and eventually, her friend. Sensing Ray’s desperation, Lila is the vector for an opportunity through which the heist unfolds: she’s got a way to make fast cash smuggling immigrants from Montreal to upstate New York.
All it will take to get that money is a few slow, ominous drives across the frozen expanse of the St. Lawrence River; “we gotta pick ‘em up,” as Lila, with her own mirror-goal of amassing enough cash to reclaim her one-year-old son from a territorial stepmother, puts it. And that river, as much as any lonely stretch of Route 66 or impossible-to-crack bank vault, serves as the precarious stage over which this nail-biter groans and cracks.