Starring Melissa Leo, the excellent actress from Homicide: Life on the Streets, Frozen River is the story of American lives in a landscape where the American Dream is a cruel joke. Leo plays Ray Eddy, a wife and mother of two boys. Ray and her family live in a small, rusting, inadequately insulated trailer in upstate New York near the Canadian border. Their dream is to own a double-wide trailer. Ray and her husband have made a nonrefundable downpayment and hope to save the balance in time to have the new trailer delivered for Christmas. Unfortunately, as the picture opens, Ray's husband, who has a gambling problem, has disappeared with their savings.
We never learn where the husband worked, but he's certainly not working now, and Ray and her sons are required to subsist on her part-time job as a clerk at the Yankee Dollar Store. Until she gets her next paycheck, they have nothing to eat but popcorn and Tang. The deposit on the new home is at risk. And Ray has about 48 hours to find the cash to stave off repossession of the family's television set. Christmas presents for the boys seem out of the question.
Ray's first thought is to search for her husband at the high-stakes bingo parlor on the nearby Mohawk Indian Reservation. She doesn't find him, but she does meet Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham), a low-wage bingo employee. Lila lives in a trailer that is smaller and less well-heated than Ray's. Lila's dream is to own a car so she won't have to walk to work in the snow, and a pair of eyeglasses so she can see better at work. Lila also dreams of attaining sufficient financial security to regain custody of her 1-year-old being raised by her late husband's mother.
Together, though initially without any mutual affection, the two women do what the poor too often do when desperate. They turn to crime. Using an unauthorized automobile pathway across the frozen river in the middle of the reservation that straddles the Canadian-American border, Ray and Lila begin to smuggle illegal aliens into the United States " Chinese, Latin-American and Middle-Eastern people even more desperate than themselves. A sickening sense of inevitable doom hangs over this operation for the rest of the film. Will the women be arrested and jailed? Will they fall victim to the ruthless people with whom they work? Will the people they are smuggling turn on them? Will the ice on the river hold? Filmmaker Hunt finds torments for them beyond even these.
Among the strengths of Frozen River is Hunt's refusal to sentimentalize her characters. Ray is a habitual liar. Lila is sullen, hostile and racist. They become allies out of necessity, not out of innate sympathy or even characteristic decency. But Hunt insists on the humanity of all her central figures. Ray and Lila do what they do because they don't see alternatives. And both of them are capable of rising above themselves. Indeed, both have their children foremost among their concerns. The human traffickers are denied redemption, but most of the secondary characters are granted the same complications afforded Ray and Lila. A wary policeman (Michael O'Keefe) is steely and humorless but ultimately not heartless. Lila's older son (Charlie McDermott) is resentful and sometimes defiant, but he's a good and caring brother. In sum, people do things they shouldn't. Sometimes they have reasons we don't have to labor too hard to understand. The best are those who learn from their mistakes and those who learn to forgive those who have trespassed against them.