Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Snow Stories III

Frozen River (Courtney Hunt, 2008, USA)

There are parts of this world where even the slightly weak-hearted among us would fear to tread. There are parts of this world that the genteel scarcely interact with, that the most enlightened among us do not even know exist. Courtney Hunt's Frozen River (Academy Award Nominee for Best Original Screenplay) walks the treacherous line between the known world of gentility and its Other. Hunt sets her story in a part of a country where the security forces in the employ of the government do not dare. A part of the world with terrain so vicious, it is hard to tell where the earth beneath your feet ends, and purgatory begins. The frozen river, from the title of the film, is this treacherous line between Earth and Purgatory, treacherous not only literally, but also in the last shred of hope it offers Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo, Academy Award nominee for Best Actress), a desperate mother of two boys, trying to put away enough money for the down payment on a double-wide mobile home.

Ray Eddy lives in the harshest depths of upstate New York, close to a Mohawk Reservation and the US - Canada border. We see her for the very first time, emerging from her inadequate mobile home, in a blue and black puffer jacket, the skin on her face dry and scabby where it has been bitten by the cold. Her face is wan, dreary, and tired. There are several things we get to know about her life to which we can attribute her weary disposition - she has two sons, and she can't afford to feed them anything more than popcorn and Tang. Her mobile home is about the only sign of civillization visible in the miles of frozen whiteness around her, and it is not nearly enough to protect her family from the unrelenting cold. Her wastrel husband has disappeared with the money she had been putting away for a bigger, better mobile home. Eddy's face, however, isn't merely a face that won't smile - it's a face that can't smile. It is a face whose muscles have become so used to the snowy winds that blow out from the frozen crevices of purgatory, they have learnt not to move. And her face is just the beginning.

Forsaken by the institutions put in place to help people like herself, Eddy takes to smuggling illegal immigrants across the US - Canada border in her car, driving across the frozen St. Lawrence River, for a sum of $1200. Banking on the relative safety from security forces as long as she stays within the Reservation, Eddy drives through the endless expanse of wintry nights, risking her own life as well as the lives of her passengers. On one occasion, Eddy takes a duffel bag from a young Pakistani couple she is transporting, and throws it out into the freezing night, afraid it might contain explosives. It is only after Eddy unloads her passengers that she realizes the duffel bag, lying several miles behind them on the river's frozen skin, contains the couple's new-born child. Undaunted by this incident, Eddy decides to make one last trip, following which she believes she can buy her new mobile home. Unfortunately, the frozen river also chooses this last trip to give way, trapping Eddy and her passengers on the cracking ice, waiting to be arrested.

The terrain, in Frozen River, is almost sentient. Eddy's problems arise from her desperate need for a better home, one that can stand guard between her family and the punishing cold. When she takes to driving illegal immigrants across the frozen river, it is as though the cold invites her, tempts her, quite like the Devil himself. It seduces her, makes her believe that it will hold steady, solid, as she does what she needs to do, only to pull the ground from beneath her feet in that very last lap, just as she reaches out for the finish line. The frozen river is not only a literal representation of the treacherousness of wintry terrain, but also a metaphor for that dangerous, blurry middle ground between Earth and Purgatory, where you cannot tell solid ground from frozen water, and where your fate is held in the icy hands of a force you cannot control.

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