The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Movie Review:
Frozen River

Apr 20, 2009

Frozen River, which was in movie theaters last fall, is now out on DVD. In its own way, it is a kind of war movie. The trenches are not in Iraq, but in places like the dollar-store where Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo) works part-time as a clerk, struggling to put food on the table for her family.

The story takes place in upstate New York at the Canadian border where the Mohawk reservation straddles the St. Lawrence River. The landscape is gray, snow-covered and dotted with trailers and discount stores.

The movie opens with a close-up of Ray, who has just discovered that her gambler of a husband has taken off with the down payment for their double-wide. It is a week before Christmas. The camera shows every crease in Ray’s face – reminiscent of Dorothea Lange’s photos of a Depression-era mother.

Ray has two sons, 15-year-old T.J. (Charlie McDermott) and 5-year-old Ricky (James Reilly). The meager wage she gets clerking at the Yankee Dollar Store does not go very far.

She tries to get a promotion at work. But the store manager, who looks like a snotty-nosed kid, gives the promotion to her always late but much younger and prettier co-worker.

Ray is humiliated in a real estate office and hounded by creditors threatening to repo the big-screen TV in her shabby living room. She digs through the couch cushions looking for loose change to give her boys lunch money. Dinner is popcorn and Tang.

Not the least of her problems is T.J. who offers to quit school and take a job. As de facto head of the household while she is working, he cooks up a telemarketing scam and almost burns down the trailer when he uses his father’s blowtorch to unfreeze the pipes.

Ray develops a relationship of necessity with Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham), a sad, single mother with a reputation for smuggling illegal immigrants into the U.S. from Canada. They meet when Ray visits the bingo parlor on the Mohawk reservation looking for her husband and catches Lila stealing the car he left behind. Lila is as desperate as Ray. Her daughter was taken from her at birth by her mother-in-law.

Ray and Lila become smugglers who drive across the frozen St. Lawrence River for meetings with a gun-toting Québécois. He hands over illegal immigrants from China and Pakistan who hide in her trunk while Ray drives them over the ice to a remote motel on the other side of the border. At each stop, cash is exchanged and haggled over.

Racism is a fact of life. The state police have a double standard for Native people and white people; a white driver is much less likely to be stopped and questioned. Lila makes no secret of her resentment toward white folk. Ray has her own qualms. What if the Pakistanis she is carrying across the border are terrorists?

Even though this film takes place in a unique location with a unique set of circumstances, it will feel familiar to many working class people in many ways.