Tuesday, September 09, 2008

"Frozen River" is a well-structured, character driven drama: Yes, a beginning, middle and end!


Well, here’s another movie about moral relativism. And, it is so forcefully told as a story that you forget about the morals and the big issues, unless you insist on thinking about them.

A middle aged, cigarette smoking woman who works in a convenience store and is suddenly thrust into single motherhood of her 15 and 5 year old boys, “befriends” a blunt woman on a nearby Mohawk reservation and, desperate for cash, she gets into smuggling illegal aliens across a frozen river on tribal land on the New York-Quebec border. That’s the set up of the indie thriller “Frozen River,” directed and written by Courtney Hunt, from Sony Pictures Classics. The mother is Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo), the young tribal woman is Lila (Misty Upham), and the kindly state trooper who busts them is Finnerty (Michael O’Keefe), but the star of the movie is probably the resourceful teen T.J. (Charlie McDermott). He is always resourceful, doing what it takes: using welding tools to fix frozen pipes, and starting a telemarketing scam to buy his kid brother a Christmas toy because his mother can’t afford to, and even making a hand-powered, mechanical merry-go-round in the front yard. You wish he had the opportunity to be raised with resources; he seems like the kind of kid that would start the next Internet revolution if given the chance.

But most of the structure of the story builds through the “bond” between Ray and Lila, built up in many escapades, hostile at first, and river crossings. The illegal cargo gets more dangerous, and Ray has real second thoughts when finally she has to carry Pakistanis. She insists on leaving a duffel bag with unknown contents in the snow, because she thinks they really could be terrorists. On that, the denouement of the story will build, with a touch of Silas Marner thrown in. And the “end” says a lot about bonds and relationships, and relatively little about politics.

There are some big questions. First, I know that before 9/11, there were plenty of private dirt roads from border states crossing into prairie provinces with no control. Perhaps that has been stopped since then with fences (nothing like on the Mexican border, though). I doubt that anything like what goes on in the movie is that “easy” in the Plattsburgh area. This is, after all, “only a movie.”

The movie views “morality” as perhaps many working people really experience it: blood family comes first, and that is not to be questioned. T.J. must take care of his younger brother because of the “failures” of his parents (essentially, his father) who set up his world (and had the “power” to do so). Then, the movie does venture into the legal aspects of tribal law and whether conventional authorities really may act on tribal land when necessary. Even that fits into the conclusion nicely.

Visually, the film is striking (the opening shot somehow reminds me of Lake Superior), and it makes me miss my six years in Minnesota. The film could have used wider screen aspect ratio.

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