Sunday, March 11, 2018

Frozen River

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

Similar to another cold-titled movie previously discussed, Winter’s Bone, we have in this 2008 film a view of how those living in oppressive poverty may turn to illegal means for relief when there is no legitimate help on which to rely. The story here distills this theme down to the lives of a struggling wife, Ray (Melissa Leo), and a single Mohawk mother, Lila (Misty Upham).
The first shot is of the frozen river of the title. It provides a means of crossing over the border between New York state and Canada. The idea of connecting is presented here, as the two main characters must eventually span the cultural divide between them. As Lila says later, there is no boundary when it comes to Mohawk territory, and that statement takes on metaphorical meaning, as borders between people must be obliterated in order for them to help each other out, since poverty knows no ethnic or cultural boundaries. We see a new trailer home on the road, which suggests the happy arrival of a new house being delivered, and on which Ray has pinned her hopes for her family. We have a sign that announces the location as Messina, “The Gateway to the Fourth Coast,” implying that we are not in the pick of the litter of locations. The next shot is that of a child’s merry-go-round, but it is not a happy sight, since there are no children playing on it (we in fact find out that it is broken), and the area appears cold, snow-laden, and pretty much inhospitable. We see Ray’s run-down trailer home and Ray is outside , in the cold, alone, crying. She has put a deposit down on a new double-wide, but her gambling-addicted husband took the money for the first installment and ran off.

When the trailer delivery man arrives, Ray tries to get him to leave half of the trailer. It is the second time he has come out and his frustration and Ray’s mirror each other, only, literally, from different sides of the “coin.” The struggle for money is the consuming preoccupation of these people living on the edge of America’s physical and fiscal outskirts. Even the name of the store where Ray works, the “Yankee One Dollar,” emphasizes the importance of the need for a bargain to save some cash. Ray has been employed there for two years, and she was promised that she would be given full-time status after six months. But her boss, despite her the length of time there and always being on time, considers Ray to be a short-timer who is not commited. Her employer just wants to exploit her. For Ray, living by society’s rules has only short-changed her. When Ray stops for gas, she can only find $2.74 in her pocket, and is thrilled when she discovers an extra $5 in her clothes. For dinner, her children eat Tang and popcorn. She rummages through the sofa to find loose change for her boys’ lunch money. Her young son, Ricky, (James Reilly), asks what will happen to their old trailer once they get the new one. She tells him that it will be flattened, sent to China, and made into toys that she will probably sell at the Yankee One Dollar. This little tale shows how Americans are exploited in the world of commerce as they will wind up paying for the same objects twice, once when they are new and again when they are discarded. It also points out how marginal is their existence. Such is the deprived world in which Ray and her family live.

Her son, T.J. (Charlie McDermott) tries to fix the merry-go-round, not so his brother, Ricky, can enjoy playing on it, but so that he can sell it to make money. He is fifteen-years-old, and wants to get a job to help out. But his mother refuses because she doesn’t want him to have to grow up too quickly and lose the chance at enjoying his youth before taking on the burdens of a grown-up. T.J. uses a blowtorch to try and fix the children’s ride, but Ray chastises him about the danger involved (a bit of foreshadowing of what is to come). The runaway dad gave the torch to his son, and he wants to use it, because it is his way of holding onto the hope for the return of his errant father. T.J. yells at his mother for getting on his father too much about turning over his paycheck to her and going to rehab meetings. She reminds him that her husband is an “addict” when it comes to gambling, but his affliction also points to an attempt at finding alternate means to get money when it is so difficult to get ahead financially.

Ray goes looking for her husband and finds his car at a Mohawk bingo parlor, where Lila works. Lila has poor vision which makes it difficult to read the playing cards. She can’t do a good job taking phone messages at a Mohawk reservation office because nobody can read her writing. This physical problem infringes on her ability to earn a living and thus limits her independence. Ray does not find her husband at the bingo tables, but sees Lila drive off in her husband’s car. Ray follows her to Lila’s home, which is also a trailer, one even more dilapidated than Ray’s, since Lila’s doesn’t even have heat. (We hear the man on her radio talking about how it is going to get much colder, with a new storm coming in, which basically stresses how dire her world is). Ray wants the keys to her car, and threatens Lila, shooting a hole in her trailer. Lila gives her the keys, and when Ray says how her husband left his family, Lila tells Ray she saw a man abandon the car and leave on a bus. After Ray is unable to tow the car, Lila says that she can take her to someone who will buy the automobile. It is a trick, because Lila wants to use the car to smuggle illegal Chinese workers into the U. S. Lila gets a hold of Ray’s gun, and forces Ray to go along with the scheme, but offers Ray half of the money she receives. Ray asks what if the police stop them, but Lila says, “They’re not gonna stop you. You’re white.” And, sure enough, they drive right past a trooper, who ignores Ray’s car. These scenes stress the racial profiling in the law enforcement system.
Lila shares the fact that she lost her husband, who drowned (people say they are “drowning in debt,” and perhaps, given the emphasis on the lack of money here, Lila’s husband symbolically died of poverty). Lila’s baby son was taken from her by her mother-in-law, which shows Lila’s sense of helplessness. Her dependence can be seen in the fact that she needs Ray’s car, and her good eyesight to count the money. When they cross the frozen river, and Lila tells Ray not to worry about crossing illegally into Canada, because the whole area is Mohawk territory, we are reminded how the whole continent at one time belonged to Native Americans. But, the whites came and divided the land up, confining the original inhabitants to small reservations. Driving over the river now implies crossing the line between legality and unlawfulness, and when we see the sign that warns of “Danger,” it not only indicates the possibility of cracking the ice, but also of breaking the law. Despite the fact that Lila echoes Ray’s lack of money, and loss of a husband, the two do not get along at this point. Lila has taken her husband’s car, and fooled her into committing a crime. Lila says she isn’t used to working with whites, so the historical animosity divides them. After they conclude their journey, Lila doesn’t pay up, and they struggle, with Lila escaping.

Christmas is coming and Ray doesn’t have enough money to put gifts under the tree. T.J. warns his mother about how their TV is going to be repossessed. (He later runs a scam on an elderly Mohawk woman on the phone, stealing her credit card number, hoping to pay the installment on the television. The company only accepts cash, sparing him the “crossing the line” scenario. But, the scene shows how poverty can corrupt young people, forcing them to lose their innocence, and initiating them into a life of crime). Ray tells T.J. to put up the Christmas tree, because she is going “Christmas shopping.” Ray wants what many American families want, but the irony here is that the only way she knows how to get it is to become a criminal. She again confronts Lila, and this time volunteers to be her smuggling partner.
The people that they are bringing into the U. S. are looking for a better life. But, in order to get to America, they become indebted to people Lila calls “Snakeheads,” (a Satanic reference?), people who pay $40,000 to $50,000 to get them into the country. The illegals basically become slaves, working seemingly forever to pay off that debt. (The nasty Canadian smuggler takes the illegals’ shoes from them before they hide in the car trunk so they won’t run away). Instead of being a land of opportunity, their new country becomes, instead, a place of bondage. So, America, in this film, impoverishes and thus restricts the freedom of original Americans, those who descended from immigrants, and new arrivals who are unable to afford the time and money to become legal citizens.

Ray gets enough money from the smuggling to stop the repossession of the TV. But, T.J. is suspicious. Ray, who is trying to keep her son on the straight and narrow, ironically, get the money illegally, and then lies to her son, saying she got a promotion at work. She says she will get them their “double-wide” home for Christmas, but she says to T.J. not to say anything to his brother, “just in case.” T.J. cynically repeats those words, stressing how he expects nothing to turn out alright. So, despite his mother’s efforts, he has become jaded, having been disappointed so many times before. But, Ray does acquire enough money to get the trailer park dealer, Versailles (Jay Klaitz), to schedule another delivery. There is a brochure for the trailers that says, “Live the Dream,” which seems like an enormous compromise of the American Dream. However, when Ray describes the new home as having several bedrooms, a Jacuzzi, and most of all, insulation to keep the literal, and figurative, coldness at bay, for these people, it is a wish they want to come true. That is why Ray, on the phone to her son, Ricky, says Santa Claus is coming, because the hope is still there, even if it derives from her criminal actions.

On one of their runs, Ray and Lila smuggle a Pakistani couple, who have a bundle that is placed in the back of the car. Ray, who already showed her prejudice when she judged the Mohawk harshly for not celebrating Christmas, now fears that the Pakistanis could be terrorists. On their journey, she throws the bag out of the window, just in case it contains explosives. When they deliver the couple, the woman is screaming, saying her baby was in the bag. Ray and Lila, both mothers, race back to find the baby, who does not seem to be responding. Lila is immediately pessimistic, mirroring the loss she feels about her boy being taken from her. However, they bring the baby into the car, turn on the heat, and revive the child.
T.J. uses a friend to get Ricky the toy he wanted, but when Ray returns, she chastises him for associating with his friend, who she believes stole the gift. It is ironic that Ray tells her son to steer away from criminals when she is one herself. Earlier, T.J. used the blowtorch to defrost frozen pipes, but started a fire in the process, that he was able to extinguish after damage was done. The blowtorch represents how the son, in a way, is carrying a “torch” for his father’s affection, but it also shows the destructive effect of his father’s gambling and absence. He finally breaks down and acknowledges how his father has hurt him, saying what kind of dad runs off and leaves his family right before Christmas, a time when people come together to celebrate their families.
Lila now has glasses, and is able to work at the bingo hall again, which shows how she now wants to be independent. The incident with the baby has shaken her up, and she does not want to do any more smuggling. But, Ray wants to do one more run, and she promises Lila that she can have Ray’s car and gun afterwards. This job goes badly. When the Canadian tries to shortchange them, Ray pulls out her gun, and gets the money from him. But, she is nicked by a bullet as they escape. Troopers chase them, and Ray and Lila must abandon the car as it cracks the ice when they try to cross the river, literally and figuratively ending their crime spree, and signaling the climax of the story. Lila, Ray, and the illegals flee to the Mohawk reservation. The troopers follow them there, and say they need the return of the illegals and Lila, who was known to them before for smuggling cigarettes. The council decides to expel Lila for five years, which means she will not be able to see her son start to grow up. At first Ray says she has to leave, and is sorry about what is happening to Lila, but says at least someone is taking care of her child, while she is the only one who can provide for her kids.

On her way home, Ray looks at the river. The temperatures have moderated and that is why her car fell through the ice. Symbolically, now she must “break the ice,” that separates her culture from that of the Mohawks. In the end, just like in the the TV series Big Little Lies, despite differences, the women here share their sisterhood, and must help each other out. Ray is white, with no criminal past. She offers herself up as the smuggler so that Lila will not be exiled from the reservation and sent to jail. The trooper says that Ray will probably only receive a sentence of four months. Liberated by Ray’s action, Lila now feels empowered and marches into her mother-in-law’s house and takes her child (and her confidence in herself) back.
Ray not only takes the fall for Lila, she entrusts her children to her, saying she can live in the new trailer with her child and take care of Ray’s sons while she is in prison. The two women have broken down the barriers, geographical and historical, that separated them, and have embraced inclusiveness, as they are linked by their common needs and wants. The ending is hopeful, as T.J. has fixed the merry-go-round, allowing the “merry” to be prefixed to this Christmas, as we see the children ride together, with the grim Lila finally smiling, and the new trailer home being transported to its destination.

The next film is Thank You for Smoking.

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