Movies don’t come any more hardboiled than Frozen River, even if virtually every scene of the film is is covered with snow and ice. Courtney Hunt’s refreshingly blunt and unsentimental storyline centers on Ray (Melissa Leo), a housewife abandoned by her husband and stranded with two young sons in a dead-end job at the Yankee Dollar. By chance she falls in with Lila (Misty Upham), a troubled young Mohawk woman who smuggles illegal immigrants across the frozen St. Lawrence River via tribal lands overlapping Quebec and the New York state line. As a Mohawk, Lila can travel with relative ease between the three worlds; as a white woman, Ray can avoid the attention of state troopers; as partners, they can make good, albeit sometimes highly dangerous, money.
Frozen River is artfully constructed beneath its plain facade: Hunt’s script (she also directed) conveys a great deal of information about each woman’s circumstances, even as it delivers a deceptively straightforward, often frighteningly intense story, and nothing is sugar-coated. Ray, while not a howling racist, is hardly enlightened in her views of other non-whites, and in one sequence she nearly loses our sympathies by letting prejudice lead her into a hasty decision with potentially horrifying consequences. She and Lila join forces more out of need than choice, but by the end of the film they have reached an understanding that points the way to survival, and even an oasis of warmth and affection, in this cold, dog-eat-dog world.