The natural habitat of coyotes — that bipedal species in symbiotic relation with migratory homo sapiens — is not limited to the Mexican border. Of course, coyotes stalk the 1,952-mile stretch from Brownsville to San Diego. But the 5,522-mile border separating the United States from Canada offers wider opportunity for smuggling human cargo. What distinguishes Frozen River from other recent border dramas is not only its setting amid the glacial expanse between New York and Quebec, but also its focus — not on outsiders anxious to sneak in, but on two women who transport them south across the St. Lawrence River.
One, Ray Eddy (Leo), awakens before Christmas to discover that her husband has split. A compulsive gambler, he absconded with the down payment for the family’s new trailer. On the meager salary she earns part-time at the Yankee Dollar, Ray can afford to feed her two sons only Tang and popcorn. When her husband’s abandoned car is stolen, she confronts the thief, a Mohawk named Lila Littlewolf (Upham), who has problems of her own. Lila’s baby has been snatched by her mother-in-law, and she was fired from her job at the bingo parlor because, unable to afford glasses, she cannot distinguish between a $2 and a $5 bill. Though Lila admits, “I don’t usually work with whites,” she and Ray, desperate for cash, go into business together. They drive across the frozen river and return with two Chinese migrants in the trunk. After receiving $1,200 for her services, Ray is flush enough to pay off the repo men about to seize her TV set. With no intention of making a career out of smuggling, however, she talks Lila into one last foray, to finance the new trailer. As any moviegoer knows, the final caper signals disaster.
In her nocturnal sorties across icy expanses, Ray challenges the sovereignty not only of the United States and Canada but also of the Mohawk nation. On the reservation, where Lila lives, tribal people receive preferential treatment, but elsewhere state troopers are automatically suspicious of Mohawks. The film itself is wary of the walls erected by nationality and ethnicity.
Frozen River is a bracing antidote to the raucous entertainments filling theaters on torrid summer days. Its soundtrack is minimalist and honest. Its protagonists are not superheroes or even glamorous, but middle-aged bumblers trapped in a world of broken plumbing. These are not wily coyotes, but women who stumble into smuggling just to pay the bills. Told that the couple squeezed into her car’s trunk are from Pakistan, Ray replies: “Where’s that?” Neither she nor Lila would likely be found at the screening of an independent film like Frozen River. Yet writer-director Courtney Hunt’s chilling debut feature is utterly convincing as a portrait of what it is like to be working poor when poverty is more certain than work and the temperature outside the dilapidated trailer is minus 19. •