One year after Christopher Zalla’s Sangre de Mi Sangre took the top prize at Sundance, another dubious mix of suspense and social melodrama, Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River, does the same. Call it Sundanceploitation, only this one is a more shameless brew—less intuitive, more manipulative and amateurishly performed, and so screechily written you might be excused for thinking Paul Haggis was behind it. Though Hunt’s direction is occasionally striking, as in a searching pan from the ground of the film’s weather-beaten New York-Canuck borderland to the exhausted face of Melissa Leo (shedding tears on cue, though not disingenuously), her writing hinges often on indulgent exposition, leaden metaphor, painful grade-school symbolism and cliché characterization.
Looking for her wayward husband, Ray (Leo) stumbles across Lila (Misty Upham), a Mohawk woman who smuggles illegal immigrants from Canada to New York via the frozen St. Lawrence River. Ray, a trailer mom struggling to finance a new home, naturally falls in with Lila, and with every race of people that crawls into the trunk of her car, she unleashes some new and punchy bigoted barb. It’s almost a comedy routine, and though no one insult rings disingenuous to the ears, when amassed together it’s almost as if Ray were reading line after line from a hatemonger’s handbook. It’s as if she were the locus of the world’s racism, and after every insult has been predictably hurled, the stage seems as if it’s been adequately—which is to say, crudely and bludgeoningly—set for some inevitable crisis of consciousness.
Like the overwritten dialogue that feels like too much hectoring, existing both to feed the audience needless expositional information and flatter its tongue-clucking sympathies (“I usually don’t work with whites,” says Lila), Ray’s rage is incredulously conceived but at least consistent with the effusive tenor of the plot. Such is Hunt’s lack of storytelling assurance that she doesn’t allow the desperation of Ricky (James Reilly) and T.J. (Charlie McDermott) trying to scarf down a bowl of popcorn and down a glass of Tang for breakfast to speak for itself, having Ray actually say that that’s the only food she can afford to give her sons. It’s writing for the visually impaired.
One particularly offensive scene has a Pakistani couple’s baby being left somewhere on the St. Lawrence River. Like the underclassmen in James Cameron’s vile Titanic who can’t find the ship’s exits because they don’t speak English, the immigrants are portrayed as being unable to convey what’s inside their bag before Ray disposes of it, thinking there’s terrorist paraphernalia inside. Why they don’t take the child into the trunk with them does not defy reason: It’s just another inane plot contrivance for Hunt to obviously connect the crisis to Lila’s troubles with her own child, a one-year-old who is finally removed from Lila’s grandmother-in-law’s house with a perplexing lack of resistance—but only, and this is crucial, after the near-blind Mohawk woman has been fitted with a pair of glasses. Lila and Ray’s sympathy for each other’s personal dilemmas may be sensitively handled, but when you’re dealing with a movie whose maker believes that physically seeing means believing, real life gets muddled and audiences are left feeling talked down to.