Blu-Ray Review: Oscar-Nominated ‘Frozen River’ Has Gripping Dramatic Power

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HollywoodChicago.com Blu-Ray Rating: 3.5/5.0
Blu-Ray Rating: 3.5/5.0

CHICAGOCourtney Hunt’s “Frozen River” is easily the most unlikely double Oscar nominee of 2008, scoring nods for Best Actress and Best Original Screenplay and now available on Blu-Ray from Sony Home Entertainment.

Like “Wendy and Lucy” and “Ballast” (both films I think are slightly superior), “Frozen River” is about people on the economic fringe. Melissa Leo gives a stunning performance as Ray, a Yankee Dollar employee struggling to make ends meet after the gambling addict father of her kids leaves her with next to nothing.

Misty Upham and Melissa Leo star in Courtney Hunt's Frozen River.
Misty Upham and Melissa Leo star in Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River.
Photo credit: Sony

Ray can’t make the payments on her new double-wide house, feeds her kids popcorn and Tang for dinner, and does everything she can to keep her fragile world together. She lives in Massena, New York, near the Canadian border on a landscape of North American that feels frozen physically, socially, and emotionally. Everyone is on thin ice.

Misty Upham and Melissa Leo star in Courtney Hunt's Frozen River.
Misty Upham and Melissa Leo star in Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River.
Photo credit: Sony

In this bleak terrain, Ray crosses path with another single mother, Lila, a recently widowed Mohawk woman who has watched her mother-in-law steal her child from her with no repercussions. Lila still wants to provide for her child and has entered the smuggling business, traveling across the Mohawk reservation to Canada, putting illegal immigrants in her trunk and coming back.

Ray and Lila have so few options to make ends meet that they team up in their illegal venture transporting immigrants in the middle of the night across a frozen river. Ray can see the down payment in just another trip or two, but, of course, circumstances spiral out of control and both women are forced to make a series of decisions that could mean life or death.

The nomination for Melissa Leo for Best Actress for “Frozen River” is understandable ten minutes into the Blu-Ray for this gripping drama. Her performance is the beating heart of this film and it is one hundred percent believable. It’s the kind of role that so many actresses would have turned into melodramatic scenery-chewing but Leo never goes there, saving the emotions for where they are needed in the final act.

Having said that, I think Leo took a Best Actress spot that Michelle Williams for “Wendy and Lucy,” Kristin Scott Thomas for “I’ve Loved You So Long,” and Sally Hawkins for “Happy-Go-Lucky” arguably deserved more. Watching Melissa Leo in “Frozen River,” marveling at her excellent performance, and then realizing that she probably still wouldn’t be in my top five for 2008 just proves how incredible a year it was for actresses.

Melissa Leo stars in Courtney Hunt's Frozen River.
Melissa Leo stars in Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River.
Photo credit: Sony

As for the screenplay, while I love when the Academy recognizes new voices, Hunt’s work did not deserve an Oscar nomination over at least half a dozen other choices including “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” “The Visitor,” “Rachel Getting Married” or “Synecdoche, New York”. I’m a little stunned that it was and wonder if it’s not partially due to the economic crisis this country now faces and the dramatic power the real headlines lend this story.

The script and direction for “Frozen River” are good, but there’s a subtlety in Leo’s performance that’s a bit missing from the rest of the piece. The music choices, numerous shots of the cracking ice, and general pervading sense of dread always made me feel like I was watching a movie, even though Leo’s work goes a long way in making the story believable.

The Sony Blu-Ray release for “Frozen River” is good, but far from great. The 1080P picture with a 1.78:1 aspect ratio is good but mixed a little too dark. I wonder if taking a film that was shot on such a low-budget and giving it the HD treatment doesn’t backfire for the final product. “Frozen River” is the kind of movie that might look better in standard definition. And the audio track in Dolby TrueHD 5.1 is not significantly enhanced by the format although the dialogue is well-mixed and never muffled.

As for special features, “Frozen River” includes only one, an informative and interesting commentary about the making of the film from Hunt and producer Heather Rae.

“Frozen River” is probably the major Oscar nominee that most of you haven’t seen. Correct that before the ceremony on Sunday, February 22nd, 2009, just in case Leo and Hunt pull the ultimate upset.

‘Frozen River’ is released by Sony Pictures Entertainment and stars Melissa Leo, Misty Upham, Charlie McDermott, Michael O’Keefe, and Mark Boone Junior. It was written and directed by Courtney Hunt. It was released on February 10th, 2009.

HollywoodChicago.com content director Brian Tallerico

By BRIAN TALLERICO
Content Director
HollywoodChicago.com
brian@hollywoodchicago.com

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