DVD Review: Frozen River

Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo) is a mom who only wants to do right by her two sons, teenager T.J. (Charlie McDermott) and five-year-old Ricky. But a week before Christmas her husband robbed them of the little cash they had in their "tin crapper" house trailer and lit out for ... well, Ray and the boys have no idea. The only certain thing is that he abandoned his car at a bus stop and hopped a Greyhound for God knows where. Now Ray is trapped in the December wasteland of rural upstate New York with kids who need a pantry that holds more than popcorn and Tang. All she has are a dead-end part-time job at the dollar store, an impossible balloon payment on a relatively palatial double-wide (no more frozen pipes) her family dreams of, and a desire to let her kids "have Santa Claus" when Christmas finally comes.

When opportunity and desperation meet, Ray turns to crime just to get by. That opportunity arrives in the form of Lila Littlejohn (Misty Upham), a young woman on the nearby Mohawk reservation. Marginalized by family and tribe alike, Lila has her own quiet desperation to unfold through the story. Their uneasy relationship begins when Lila recruits Ray into a scheme smuggling illegal aliens (of various nationalities) from Canada to the U.S. in the trunk of Ray's car. The job pays well, and Ray absolutely needs the money, but the clandestine trips back and forth involve evading both the state troopers and the tribal hierarchy that already know what Lila's up to. And then there's that little matter of driving a fully packed car across a temporarily frozen river at night. Lila's husband is somewhere under that ice, "lost on a run" the previous winter.

A tense, emotionally gripping tale of the heroically struggling poor, Frozen River (official site) is now the reason for Melissa Leo's Best Actress nomination at the Academy Awards. Its first-time writer-director, Courtney Hunt, is also an Oscar hopeful for best original screenplay. And that's after Frozen River's five Independent Spirit Award nominations -- including Best Film, Best Director, and Best Actress -- and the big win of the Grand Jury Prize for Best Drama at Sundance. The American Film Institute dubbed it one of 2008's top movies, as did a list of professional press critics as long as your arm.

So how come Frozen River is the Oscar contender that has so many people asking, "What the hell is that? I've never even heard of it."

Like sausages and laws, motion picture PR and distribution deals are things you don't want to see actually being made, the process is that ugly and sometimes bloody a grind. Frozen River's limited initial distribution did it no favors, and the advertising imagery fails at hooking us into the film's beautifully written and played substance. But that's being corrected now by a new theatrical run and a timely release this week on DVD and Blu-ray disc. That's a smart move, as Frozen River absolutely deserves our attention as indeed one of the best films of 2008. Its center of gravity is Melissa Leo's finely tuned performance as Ray. In her close orbit are most notably Charlie McDermott, who chose to not play T.J. as an easy Angry Teen, and first-timer Upham, who, even while maintaining a deadened flat affect, holds her own with Leo in every one of their many shared scenes.

Having finally caught Frozen River on Blu-ray, I'll be quite pleased if it takes away at least one of its potential Oscars. My only regret is that there's no Oscar for Most Impressive First-Time Director Who Could Teach Studio Hacks With Vaster Resources and Budgets a Thing or Two.

As both a writer and a director, Tennessee-born Hunt displays a flair for a good story well told. She understands the power of subtlety in hard realism, and exhibits a feel for the revealing details that speak volumes -- a bra strap so old its elastic is dead; a lower back tattoo on the young blonde co-worker that tells us in one glance everything we need to know about why Ray isn't getting ahead at the dollar store; Ray's reasoning while abandoning on the ice a Pakistani family's duffel bag -- maybe it holds a nuclear bomb or poison gas, "and I don't want to be responsible for that," when in fact what it holds becomes a key connection between Ray, Lila, and the immigrants who are also just trying to do right for their families as best they can. Looking at Melissa Leo's worn-through, terribly authentic face, you see that Ray knows hardship down to her marrow. Ray's ease with a handgun clues us in to a life's worth of understanding that even the most determined resolve sometimes requires its own backup plan.

Assisted by Reed Morano's cinematography and the supportive musical scoring by Peter Golub and Shahzad Ismaily, Hunt is a filmmaker of such restraint, and she avoided so many moments that could have careened into studio-imposed clichés we've been conditioned to expect, that Frozen River let me forget I was watching a movie, something that didn't happen often in 2008.

Yes, Frozen River is a knowing, naturalistic, bone-and-blood story of racial inequities and women on the verge of having their lives crack beneath their feet to swallow them down. But remember this, because the PR here is missing the opportunity to hook us in -- it's also a tightly wound, albeit low-key, crime thriller. And emerging from the shady dealings and gunshots and suspense are moments of unforced humor (how do you mask the smell of smoke after you almost burn your trailer down?) and lovely little revelations (what is T.J. building with that blow-torch?). Think a low-humming Fargo vibe without the Coens' exaggerations, or Sam Raimi's A Simple Plan minus the conventional plot theatrics.

What the publicity campaign is completely missing is Hunt's subtly conveyed mainspring piercing through Frozen River. It winds itself on the unifying, universal importance of family, that hard, irreducible, driving force that joins our common humanity no matter where we come from or where we're going or what we're willing to sacrifice in between.

Now on DVD and Blu-ray from Sony, Frozen River presents as well as you'd expect a new film shot in digital HD to look on home video. A few dark scenes tend to get unusually murky to my eyes, but that's the worst I could say about it. The only significant extra is the commentary track with Hunt and producer Heather Rae. It's a disappointing track for anyone taking notes on Hunt's production techniques or how she worked toward her sudden rise as a filmmaker to watch. She and Rae remark on production points here and there, give us some background on Frozen River's origins as a short film shown at the New York Film Festival, and of course they rightly praise everyone on screen and behind the scenes for their good work. It's not a bad track, for sure, but there's too much dead air and not enough prepared information on how it was all done and what they can teach us about the latest wave of filmmaking and "the industry" today.

Besides that, the only extras here are the theatrical trailer and a half-dozen trailers for other recommended indies such as The Wackness and Rachel Getting Married.