I remember going to see Alex Proyas’ The Crow (1994) in the cinema. I remember the experience not because I have any particular affection for the film but because there were two of us in the cinema and the other guy was a Goth who would groan with outrage every time the little girl appeared on screen. I can empathise with the reflex. When I went to see Neill Blomkamp’s horrific District 9 (2009) I rolled my eyes and tutted when, after having spent half an hour making the Prawns look hostile and Other, the film wheels out a sympathetic Prawn. We know that he’s sympathetic because he has a child to look after. What annoyed me during the screening of District 9 is what annoyed the person I shared a cinema with back in 1994. In both cases, the director has decided to influence audience sympathies not through the careful use of characterisation or narrative structure, but through a direct appeal to certain emotional proclivities the audience brought with them into the cinema. Namely a desire to not see children needlessly harmed. To me, these kinds of appeals invariably feel lead-footed and lumpen. At best, they strike me as manipulative and rub me the wrong way. Other times they backfire and force my sympathies in the wrong direction out of spite (as with Jaume Collet-Serra’s Orphan, which becomes ten times more fun once you start rooting for the creepy murderous child). But are these attempts at appealing to audience sentiment invariably a bad thing? Courtney Hunt’s thriller Frozen River suggests that they need not be.
Set in up-state New York on the borders with Canada and a Mohawk reservation, the film opens with Ray (Melissa Leo) searching for her husband. A compulsive gambler who has had a relapse and disappeared with all of the money they had been putting aside in order to buy a new (and enormous) mobile home. Ray never finds her husband, but she does find her husband’s car driven by a Native American woman named Lila (Misty Upham). Lila claims to have found the car abandoned and offers to help find Ray a buyer for it. However, instead of selling the car, Lila tricks Ray into using it to help smuggle some illegal immigrants out of Mohawk tribal lands and into the USA. Apparently the state troopers never stop White people.
With bills to pay and Christmas looming, Ray comes to look upon her bout of people-smuggling as easy money and she convinces Lila to make another run. A possibility Lila is more than happy to entertain as she is unemployed and hoping to regain custody of her son. This shared sense of financial desperation forces the two women to partner up regularly, but in order to keep getting work, the pair have to take more chances. Chances such as working with a demented Canadian gangster (Mark Boone Junior) and being noticed by a foreboding state trooper (Michael O’Keefe). The more risks the pair take, the more they become aware of the morality of people-smuggling as voluntary migrants soon give way to indentured slaves destined to work in sweat shops and brothels. This descent into the moral quagmire comes to a head when a run goes disastrously wrong and the pair wind up cornered by the police. One of them will have to surrender in order for the other to go free, but who will take responsibility for the pair’s actions?
Frozen River is a profoundly liberal film. The world it depicts and the characters that people it are inspired by a liberal and left-leaning understanding of how the world works and how people respond to certain kinds of pressures. This is not that uncommon. Particularly in independent cinema. However, what Frozen River does that is unusual, is use these liberal values to provoke certain kinds of emotional responses from its audience. The film’s values are anchored in an apparent paradox : On the one hand, Frozen River is an intensely geographical film that is forever talking about jurisdictions, foreign countries, borders, frontiers and rivers. However, on the other hand, it is also a film with very little sense of place. Its backdrop of trailer parks, petrol stations and decaying local shopping precincts could be situated anywhere in small town America from Alaska to Mississippi. This paradox allows the film’s values to be used to two distinct but inter-related ends : Firstly, in a tactical and scene-by-scene manner to inject tension and instil sympathies. Secondly, in a more strategic manner to grant the film’s grand narrative a particular moral message.
The film’s lack of place grants a certain degree of universality to its characters and events. Indeed, Ray and Lila are effectively working-class ‘everywomen’. Their problems are the same as those facing all of America’s working-class. For example, Ray has worked in the same job for two years but she is not allowed to work full time because she is still considered to be “the part-time type”. Lila cannot work in a shop or an office job because she cannot afford glasses. Ray lacks the money for childcare and so her oldest son has had to take responsibility for bringing up his younger brother. Lila has a son but because she lacks a proper income and lives in a tiny caravan, someone else has custody of him. The partners of both women are also conspicuous by their absence, neither is accepting his responsibilities as a father or a partner.
As a Thriller, Frozen River contains a number of scenes filled with a good deal of tension. These scenes, though technically flawless in their execution, ultimately rely for their strength not upon the cinematography or the mise-en-scene but upon the characterisation. Hunt appeals directly to the liberal values of her audience to make her characters appear more sympathetic and her scenes of tension more compelling. I suspect that if you watched Frozen River as a right-winger, the film would appear much less effective as you have much less emotional energy bound up in sympathy for the plight of the people who are represented by Ray and Lila. Cynics might argue that Lila being a Mohawk is no accident and has little to do with local colour.
Aside from such tactical uses of white liberal guilt, Frozen River also has a more wide-ranging moral message. The film’s lack of place combined with its frequent reference to invisible legal boundaries, conspires to make all of these legal distinctions appear at best arbitrary and at worst absurd. When Lila and Ray drive out of the Mohawk reservation, the only thing telling them they have left the land is a sign saying “thank you for visting”. There is no border guard and even if there were, he would only stop Native Americans. As Lila says, they do not stop white people unless the White people give them a reason to. The border exists for the Indians, not for the White people. It is enforced selectively, its true metaphysical weight highly questionable. When the pair smuggle, they do so by driving across a river. The river is frozen and so it poses no barrier to movement, making it yet another barrier between people that exists only because people choose to give it weight.
Indeed, the film’s message is that all of these divisions between people are ultimately artificial. Both Ray and Lila turn to crime because they are trapped and isolated by the paranoia of individualism. They are sinking fast but they cannot appeal to anyone for help. Of course, by the end of the film they realise that not only do they have each other, but they can also trust the state. The stern-faced trooper who provoked so much fear at his initial appearance reveals himself to be sympathetic and the arbitrary and aloof tribal council show themselves to be compassionate and forgiving. In effect, the film is about ‘learning’ the validity of the leftist world view. Its use of American working-class iconography is not only intentional, it is also post-apocalyptic. Even in a world of trailer parks and main streets destroyed by Wallmart, trust and co-operation can make things better. This message is neatly brought home by a sub-plot involving Ray’s oldest son. When he hears about Lila taking his father’s abandoned car, the boy talks about wanting to “kick some Mohawk ass” and he takes revenge by defrauding an old Indian woman over the phone. By the end of the film he is forced to live with Lila and his racism instantly disappears. In the film’s final scene, a member of the tribal police turns up to investigate the boy’s phone fraud. However, because Ray has done the right thing, the tribal police seem happy to release the boy if he is willing to apologise to the woman he defrauded.
One might be tempted to argue that this is manipulative or lazy film-making. Instead of making us care about the characters on their own merits, the director relies upon our emotional baggage to make the film function. This reduces the cinematic experience to having one’s buttons pushed. Surely this is no different than Hollywood filling its thrillers with the baddies-du-jour whether they be Russian, French or Muslim. Such film-making is so manipulative that cinema might as well just become the equivalent of the montage from Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View (1974), a series of emotional images juxtaposed with flash cards to generate a particular kind of emotional response. This is the Thriller as catharsis in the grand tradition of the Two Minute Hate.
However, Frozen River is not simply a series of emotionally charged images. While Lila and Ray are, in a sense, everywomen they are also well-rounded and beautifully performed individuals. Ray’s skin and demeanour speaks of an entire like of sadness. From the lines on her face to the tattooed breast and thigh that are now permanently covered up, hidden from view beneath a huge, shapeless pink fluffy nightie. Similarly, Lila’s chubbiness, much like that of Rex Stout’s detective Nero Wolfe, seems to serve as emotional insulation. She seldom speaks but when she does it is to lash out over some old grievance or pain. Similarly, the smuggling sequences are filled with genuine tension and the film is filled with nice little cinematic vignettes such as the bleakness of the frozen river itself and the hellish atmosphere of the strip club at the end of the film. Frozen River relies upon our emotional baggage, but it does not do so from a position of weakness or desperation.
Indeed, Frozen River simply makes use of a long-established set of narrative techniques. These techniques are undeniably powerful and have undeniably been used in the past with questionable motivations. Look no further than films such as Veit Harlan’s Jew Suss (1940) or D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) for examples of films that attempted to tap into and exploit pre-existing racial fears and tensions. However, conversely, what would Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) be if it were not for collective emotional response to the holocaust? It is not the act of manipulation and tapping into social tensions that makes a film unacceptable, rather it is the moral character of the fears that determines the acceptability of the film. In the case of Frozen River, the director taps into a set of fears that demand our attention. This makes it not only powerful but also timely and that is a tall order for a first-time writer/director like Hunt.