52 films

Week 18: Frozen River (2008)

Oh wow. Yet another incredible film from a little-known female director. Frozen River was nominated for two Oscars, and also won a Grand Jury prize at Sundance; it’s a movie I’d heard of but knew hardly anything about.

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It’s terrific. Set in the frozen, wintery landscape of upstate New York – on the border with Canada, and about as far from New York City as you could get in both lifestyle and geography – single mother Ray (the wonderful Melissa George) is struggling to make ends meet. Her husband has vanished, probably gambling their savings away. Her two kids are tired of being cooped up in their rundown trailer home. Life is harsh, and in the chill winter freeze, only going to get harsher. Ray is desperate to make ends meet.

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So when she runs into Mohawk native American Lila, Ray suddenly sees a way out of her financial predicament. But it comes at one hell of a price. Lila and Ray start smuggling illegal immigrants across the frozen St Lawrence river from Canada, and the tension of their precarious work is handled so deftly by first-time helmer Courtney Hunt, that you’re on the edge of your seat for most of the film.

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Full of chilly landscapes, and the rundown beauty of a town on the edge of collapse, Frozen River is a thriller with a very different approach; it’s no whodunnit. The tension is generated entirely by the dilemma the two women find themselves in. They know what they’re doing is wrong. But they need the cash, they need to survive. So who are they really harming?

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This is challenging and grown-up filmmaking at its best, with some assured performances, and a great eye for family life. Hunt is currently at work on her second film, a studio legal drama starring Keanu Reeves, and we can only hope that she handles that with as deft a touch as she brought to her first film.

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Have you seen Frozen River? What did you think? Let me know! 

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