Bechdel Test Canon: Frozen River

Given mainstream Hollywood’s fondness for glamorous actors and happy endings, it is a wonder 2008’s Frozen River’s lead actress Melissa Leo got an Oscar nomination for Best Actress and first-time writer-director Courtney Hunt a nod for Best Original Screenplay. Surprising none of its fans, both women went home empty-handed. I hope a similar fate doesn’t befall Debra Granik’s exceptional Winter’s Bone, which shares an investment in working-class female protagonists forced to circumnavigate the law and is the best movie I’ve seen this year.

Frozen River DVD cover

There should be no reason why the Academy would ignore this small, remarkable film. It’s a gripping story about two women risking their lives to smuggle illegal immigrants from Quebec to upstate New York. For their roadway, they use the St. Lawrence River. Frozen River was released a year after Ramin Bahrani’s Chop Shop and the same year as Erick Zonca’s Julia and Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy. All garnered considerable critical interest for their ingenuous depictions of working-class characters at the waxing of America’s most recent economic recession. Potential concern over championing female criminals notwithstanding, it seems like the Academy would take the bait. The movie would just need a larger promotional machine and Julia Roberts slumming in a trailer park.

Frozen River originated out of a short and was shot on location in less than a month during oppressively cold weather. Reportedly made for under a million dollars, many crew members were called upon to play minor characters. Leo had to do all of her own driving because the budget didn’t have room for a stunt driver. She also insisted upon doing her own make-up, believing that her character Rae Eddy’s mascara would clump.

This attention to character detail defines the heroic efforts of its director, a law school graduate who comes from a working-class background, and the principal actors. In a perfect world, Leo would have shared her nomination with Misty Uptham. She plays Eddy’s professional partner Lila Littlewolf, a Mohawk bingo parlor employee who involves Eddy in smuggling after she steals her car. Apparently Uptham cut her hair and gained 30 pounds for the role. This decision makes sense in the context of the film. Littlewolf is a recent widow who lost the father of her child when the ice collapsed during a run. She gave birth to their son at around the same time, but he was taken away by her mother-in-law following her husband’s death. Unable to nurse her infant son, she has held onto the pregnancy weight.

Lila and Rae in Frozen River

Though they meet through unfortunate circumstances, Eddy and Littlewolf share a kinship as economically-strapped single mothers striving to provide for their families. Littlewolf is trying to get her son back, but doesn’t have the means to support him. Eddy’s husband has a gambling problem and robbed his family and fled just before Christmas. She also has two young sons she tries to support with her job at a discount store where her much-younger boss won’t offer her a promotion after two years of service. Her older son T.J. (Charlie McDermott) has to help raise his kid brother Ricky (James Reilly), a task he meets with the resentment he harbors toward his father that he takes out on his harried mother. Just as Eddy gets little leeway from the male figures in her life, Littlewolf is stymied by the Mohawk tribe’s matriarchal structure. Her mother-in-law’s coerced guardianship is honored by the female head of the tribal council, who blocks any appeal process with bureaucracy.

Both women also clearly need each other. On one potentially tragic run, the pair mistake a bundle containing a Pakistani couple’s baby for a duffel bag they can’t load and discard it. They set out to retrieve him, suspecting that he might be dead when they find him. Potentially projecting her own loss onto the boy, Littlewolf, a passenger because of her poor eyesight, sees little hope in reviving him. Driver Eddy insists that she hold him and try to warm him up, noting that they can’t give him to his parents cold. Their efforts work, though Littlewolf credits providence.

In addition to relying upon Eddy’s eyesight, Littlewolf also takes advantage of Eddy’s whiteness. To the local police onto smuggling activities on Mohawk land, all people of color are suspects. Thus racial profiling, as we continue to witness in places like Arizona, is commonplace. Eddy’s race helps the pair negotiate being pulled over by State Trooper Finnerty (Michael O’Keefe) during a run. The next morning, he notifies her of his suspicions about the woman in the passenger seat. This is a scene that, to the filmmaker’s and actors’ credit, contains no romantic subtext. In a lesser movie, Finnerty would be Eddy’s redemptive love interest.

Rae interrogated by State Trooper Finnerty

Their operation falls apart during what fans of heist movies anticipate as the failed final run. Eddy, noting her race and clean legal record, takes the wrap for Littlewolf and anticipates a four-month sentence. She calls upon Littlewolf to buy a new mobile home with the money she saved and look after her children until her return. Following these exchanges, she reclaims her child and sets about cultivating a new life for herself. It provides the movie with only superficial resolution but suggests a life that, whether through circumstance or acquired friendship, will continue to include Eddy.

by Alyx Vesey
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6 Comments Have Been Posted


I love this movie! I thought it was the best film of 2008, hands down, and the climax of its harrowing sequence with the baby remains the most authentically joyful holiday moment I've ever seen in a movie. You've given a lovely summary here, and I hope it will result in an expanded audience for this film. The piece from Double X, which I hadn't seen before, is compelling too, though I'm not sure I agree with it.

I found this to actually be

I found this to actually be one of the more overrated films of 2008, save for Leo's performance. Okay, sure, these are strong working class women and all but the entire thing is so saccharine and the events leading up to the resolution are so ridiculous that it resulted in total disconnect from it. And the ending that seems to suggest that money can buy happiness? Come on.

I have similar problems with Winter's Bone but that I see more as an example of how film noir and these working class plight films are incompatible.

Ooh, interesting!

<P>I haven't heard many people criticize this movie, so I'm certainly interested in your disregard for <EM>Frozen River</EM>. As a critical darling, I think it should face some greater scrutiny than I or other fans gave it.</P><P>However, I do take issue with your statement that the ending suggests that money buys happiness. Money buys a single-wide that Rae has to replace when her son burns up their trailer, leaving their property unliveable. Basically, Rae is forced to squander her modest dream of a double-wide so her children aren't homeless while she's serving time. Also, the money she gives Lila is only supposed to stretch for a few months at most, which may run out before Rae returns. I wouldn't necessarily regard that as a simple solution or a pat ending. It also doesn't suggest either of these women won't continue to have financial problems after Rae is released from jail, as I believe they will.</P><P>Nor do I regard Rae's decision to take the wrap as a pat ending. I do think there's a valid critique to be made here about the noble white lady overcoming her racial myopia and surrendering herself for her the greater good of her friend of color, and I welcome someone to make it more eloquently. But, again, I don't think this resolves the problems Rae has at home with her older son or with her absent husband.</P><P>As to your comments on <EM>Winter's Bone</EM>, I'd again welcome some additional commentary. I didn't get into its generic strictures and don't fancy myself an expert in film noir. I merely wanted to link the two movies on a superficial level and put them in the context of American release trends. Frankly, I didn't dwell much on its attempts at film noir when I saw it, so it didn't come to bear on my enjoyment. And I also tend to enjoy when movies play around with and recast generic conventions rather than treat them as sacrosanct. But I'd be really interested in hearing you elaborate on your comment on film noir and working-class plight films (as well as its literary source material) being incompatible, as I had little trouble reconciling them in the theater.</P>

Also . . .

<P>I'd be really curious to hear what 2008 movies you esteemed more highly than <EM>Frozen River</EM>.&nbsp;It would be interesting to put this movie alongside others that were released that year that don't necessarily include the title I mentioned in the body of my post.</P>

My picks are fairly

My picks are fairly predictable: Synecdoche, New York, The Dark Knight, Let the Right One In, WALL-E, Hunger, Che, Cloverfield, The Wrestler, Encounters at the End of the World, and Funny Games.

My problem regarding noir and

My problem regarding noir and Winter's Bone is basically that noir is inherently cynical and nihilistic and this film (Winter's Bone) is much more idealistic. Noir's all about morally ambiguous characters motivated by greed or lust who get screwed by fate in the end. Winter's Bone provides a very idealized portrayal of Rhee, removing all the ambiguity and sexual drive. It could be the film school geek in me talking but I feel as if noir has a set of rules that must be followed if they desire to be noir.

One could argue that the film isn't attempting to be a noir but I think it definitely has aspirations. It's definitely a detective film in the vein of Chinatown and the dialogue is stylized and hard-boiled.

Of course, despite all this the film boasts some very fine performances and I fully expect an Oscar nom for Lawrence.

Regarding Frozen River, my comment about the ending may seem pretty glib in hindsight and it definitely results from me not considering any possible events post-ending but I felt the film itself wasn't concerned with these either.

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