Frozen River

Pop Theology contributor Wendy Arce reviews last year’s independent hit, Frozen River.

The independent film, Frozen River (directed by Courtney Hunt), caught the Academy’s eye last year because of Melissa Leo‘s performance as Ray Eddy, a poor white woman living in upstate New York.  Even when she wasn’t talking, her face said everything in some of her best scenes in the film.  Ray is the mother of two children whose husband has recently robbed and abandoned her.  When we first meet her, she stands outside her trailer smoking a cigarette, distressed.  She is waiting on the brand new double wide home that would have been delivered that very day had her husband not run off with their savings a week before Christmas. She can either find her husband or beg her boss for a promotion.  She is unsuccessful at both.

As she aimlessly drives around, she spots her husband’s car outside a bingo gaming hall in Mohawk territory. She sees a Mohawk, Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham), drive off in it and follows her home. Lila confirms Ray’s worst fears–her husband fled to Atlantic City and abandoned the car with the keys in it. Lila offers to buy Ray’s car because it has a large trunk that can be opened from the inside. When Ray refuses, Lila says that her cousin will pay $2000 cash for the car.  Lila takes Ray through Mohawk territory and towards a river that has frozen solid.  Although Canada lies across the border, Lila does not recognize this boundary because, to her, it is all Mohawk land.  They drive across the river, and instead of buying the car, Lila’s cousin fills the trunk with two Asian men and gives Ray $1200.  Ray is in a difficult position here because, while she desperately needs the money, she will have to break the law to get it.  The money wins out and she drives the two Asian men across the frozen river and into the U.S.

While Ray has her reservations about these “missions,” Lila assuages her fears by saying: “You won’t get pulled over. You’re white.”  Although they are both impoverished women, this gives Ray a distinct advantage over Lila.  Lila explains that in most cases, the people they ferry across the river have debts of tens of thousands of dollars that they have accrued just to come to the states.  These people must then work off these debts as indentured servants.  This creates a vicious cycle of oppression to which Ray and Lila contribute and from which they benefit.

We learn that Lila has had a tough go of it as well.  Although she lives alone in a camper, she too has a child. Her husband died tragically as he was crossing the river to buy Lila a new crib for their baby. As soon as she gave birth to her son, her mother-in-law stole the baby from her and, powerless to get him back, she must watch him from afar.  If Melissa Leo’s silent expressions demonstrated her acting abilities, the Misty Upham’s are simply priceless.  She perfectly embodies an indigenous woman who has lost everything, both in her silence and when she reminds Ray of the privilege associated with her whiteness.

On their final run, everything goes wrong. Ray persuades Lila to cross one last time so she can finally have enough money to buy her double wide trailer.  Unfortunately, the highway patrol learns of their smuggling but cannot apprehend Lila because of her sovereignty as a Mohawk on Mohawk land.   However, as the tribal authorities begin proceedings to kick Lila out of the tribe, the patrolmen try to strike up a deal with Ray.  If Ray will hand over Lila to the authorities, they will let her go.  This obviously places Ray in a perilous position in which she can take advantage of her privilege and go free or sacrifice it for the sake of another.

In the end, the film looks critically at the oppressive and cyclical structures that take advantage of the impoverished and powerless.  From immigrants to single women to native American women, the film gives us an uncomfortable look at the difficult choices people have to make when they are forced to act for their livelihood.  Melissa Leo was nominated for Best Actress, and rightly so. Her portrayal of a poor, white woman demonstrated the intricate layers of oppression that she faced.  However, I am left wondering why Misty Upham was left out in the cold regarding a best supporting actress nomination, especially when Viola Davis received a nomination for her extremely brief turn in Doubt.  While Leo’s performance was moving, Upham’s was soul-shattering.  The complexities of her character and the troubles she faced as a poor Native American woman were just as powerful, or more so, than those of Davis’ character.  Perhaps Upham’s performance will convince our film community, especially awards voters, to pay attention to the acting talent from this ignored community.  This “blindness” seems ironic in an awards season in which a film that featured the third world garnered so many awards (Slumdog Millionaire).  It seems that, this year, while giving so much attention to Slumdog, the Academy continued to ingore one of the most marginalized groups within our own borders.  The Academy often displays an image of open-mindedness and opportunity, but shuts its doors to the oppressed within.  While our society often focuses on the border to the south, and a recent wildly popular film “exoticizes” urban poverty, Frozen River reminds us to consider our northern border and the injustices and need that dwell there or pass through.

Frozen River (97 mins.) is rated R for some language and is available on DVD.  Apparently this is another case of the ratings board’s efforts to prevent children under 17 from learning that life can be tough.