Frozen River (Sony Pictures Classics, R)

film_frozenriver_sm.jpgWhat makes Frozen River work as well as it does is there is always something to worry about.







The term "thriller" as it pertains to a genre of film is thrown around so much and at enough things that it has lost all meaning. The most popular idea of what epitomizes a thriller seems to veer toward what is a horror film with an intellectual bent (i.e., The Silence of the Lambs, Se7en), but when the term is thrown at a film that does not take the horror angle but is nonetheless thrilling, it is usually derided by the vast majority of its audience. (A good example of this phenomenon was the initial, regular-person audience reaction to Darren Aronofsky’s Pi, unhappy the film was about math and not about killing people). And now we have Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River, which is a quite exemplary thriller—but I am reluctant to call it as such, because it is much closer to being a regular old drama than a horror film. But it is thrilling.

Frozen River focuses on an arguably white trash woman named Ray Eddy who lives in New York State right at the Canadian border. I say "arguably" here for odd reasons; I am quite certain Hunt wanted Eddy to come off as white trash, but as portrayed by the miraculous character actress Melissa Leo, it seems a disservice to her grace-hiding-behind-old-tattoos to call her that. Eddy’s husband is a habitual gambler, and so Ray has to do her best working part time at a local dollar store to support her two children, including trying to save enough money to upgrade her dilapidated old trailer with a doublewide. A series of chance encounters leads Eddy to meet a Mohawk Indian named Lila (Misty Upham) who is into smuggling illegal aliens across the border from Quebec via the frozen river of the title, but she isn’t very good at it, as the cops know what she’s up to, and the smugglers on the Quebec side don’t want to have anything to do with her. Although reluctant to become a smuggler, the pressing financial needs of her family lead Eddy to make a few runs across the river with people in her trunk.

What makes Frozen River work as well as it does is there is always something to worry about: Will the car make it across the river all loaded with people? Will the two children destroy the trailer while left unattended by their parents? Will Eddy and Lila get caught by the cops? And what the hell is in that bag, anyway? It’s a paranoid’s dream.

I’d be very happy to see more movies of a similar ilk and quality to Frozen River come down the pike, but that seems unlikely, given the success rate of thrillers as a whole (the majority of the good ones to have come out in the past 20 years have been mentioned in this short review, unfortunately). Given that, at least we can look forward to what Courtney Hunt does next; Frozen River is her feature first film, and hopefully she has a long and lovely career in front of her. | Pete Timmermann

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