Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Crimes in the Country: Frozen River (2008) and Winter's Bone (2010)

Two excellent Oscar-nominated films starring female leads and directed by women, Frozen River (2008) and Winter's Bone (2010) use crime fiction as a means of exploring local culture and family dysfunction in two distinct rural regions of the United States: upstate New York and the Missouri Ozarks.

Frozen River, written and directed by Courtney Hunt (who received an Oscar nomination for the screenplay), tells the story of Ray Eddy (best actress Oscar nominee Melissa Leo), a struggling middle-aged mother of two boys living in a trailer home whose husband has just run off with their savings to go on a gambling spree.

After encountering Mohawk single mother Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham), the increasingly desperate Ray, whose only source of income is her part-time job at the local Yankee Dollar store, gets drawn into the more lucrative but dangerous crime world of smuggling illegal immigrants across the frozen St. Lawrence River that separates the United States from Canada on the local Mohawk reservation.

Centered on an authoritative performance by Melissa Leo, Frozen River makes compelling viewing. Will Ray get out of her mess, or will she be plunged into disaster?  Besides the crime drama, however, the film offers a fascinating look at a local culture--or cultures, I should say, the interplay between the Native Americans and whites being particularly fascinating. Both Ray and Lila are mothers having to deal with harsh economic circumstances and absconding, irresponsible men. Will these two women, who actually share much in common, come to a better understanding of each other? (Things certainly don't get off to a good start.)

Off to a Bad Start: Lila and Ray make their first trek across the frozen river

Winter's Bone shares a great deal in common with Frozen River.  Directed by Debra Granik, who received an Oscar nomination for the screenplay which she co-adapted from the novel by Daniel Woodrell (the film was also nominated for best picture), Winter's Bone details the struggles of Ree (not to be confused with Frozen River's Ray), a seventeen year-old tasked with taking care of both her younger brother and sister and her mentally ill mother after her father is arrested for meth distribution.

Since being released on bail he has disappeared and, because he put up as partial bond the family house and land, Ree faces imminent crisis--the breakup of her what remains of her family--unless she can track down her dad.  Ree is played by Jennifer Lawrence, now of course one of Hollywood's most bankable and critically-esteemed stars.  She received her first best actress Oscar nomination for this role.

Eventually Ree finds herself running up against a local crime family, putting herself at great personal peril if she continues asking questions.  There's also her enigmatic uncle, Teardrop (John Hawkes, Oscar nomination for best supporting actor); where does he stand in all this?

Graveyard Shift: Ree and Teardrop make a midnight visit to the cemetery

Even darker than Frozen River, Winter's Bone works splendidly as "country noir" but additionally as a fascinating study of regional American folkways (and crime waves). Jennifer Lawrence does an excellent job, though her luminous beauty is arguably a bit of a handicap here.  As Teardrop, the second most important character in the film, the scraggy and intense John Hawkes seems, like Melissa Leo with Ray in Frozen River, to have been born to play his role. Hawkes seem equally suited to both period Westerns and noir and really deserves some good roles. (Recently he played the lead in the hard-boiled film Too Late, currently in limited--very limited--release; I dearly want to see it.)

Both films are heartily recommended as excellent crime drama or, simply, drama.  This tramp gives them two thumbs up.

For an enlightening essay on Winter's Bone see, preferably after you have viewed the film, this essay by Michael Moon and Colin Talley, linked as well above:

Life in the Shatter Zone: Debra Granik's Winter's Bone


  1. excellent article on two horrendously neglected brilliant films

  2. Two brilliant films. I would say WINTER'S BONE got some attention. But FROZEN RIVER almost none. Melissa Leo is one of the few female actors not afraid to look the part and play the part. Jennifer Lawrence may settle into character roles too as she ages.

    1. Oh, yes, Leo was perfect. Both great instances of crime fiction as regional character study.

  3. Winter's Bone is based on a fine novel by Daniel Woodrell.

  4. I have been meaning to see both these. Big admirer of Daniel Woodrell and of Jennifer Lawrence.

    1. Check 'em out, Moira! By the way, added a link to a great essay on Winter's Bone, but it has some spoilers.