I wish there were a lot more movies like this, but it’s sort of a downer, and people tend not to like downers. By that, I mean movies that show what a reasonable approximation of “real life” is like to all too many people. Most non-historical movies (and even most of them) are fantasies of one sort or another. They take place in exotic locations, or are about people we’d like to be, or things we’d like to do, or at least pretend we’d like to be and do. I’ve got nothing against fantasies. In fact, just about all my favorite movies fall into that category. But a good stiff dose of reality is something that’s much harder to do, and worth all the more for it.
This one takes place in the frozen winter hellhole of the Mohawk Indian Reservation in New York … and Canada, which means that for some distance there is no actual border, because the rez is a sovereign nation. This creates an interesting situation, in that one can cross the St. Lawrence River on the rez and not break any smuggling laws. It’s when you try to get from the rez to the USA that the trouble starts. It’s about two women barely scraping by. Lila Littlejohn (Misty Upham) is a smuggler whose infant son has been “stolen” by her mother-in-law. Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo) is a white woman whose piece-of-shit husband (who we never see, I’m happy to say) has just once more gambled way all her hard-earned savings for her sad little version of paradise: a double-wide trailer. She is on her own trying to raise two sons, 5 and 15, and they’ve been reduced to popcorn and Tang for breakfast. Through a series of happenstances, the two become uneasy partners in smuggling Chinese people over the border, driving across the frozen river. The money is good, but it’s a scary business, dealing with some very bad people. Ray is a take-no-prisoners sort, tough as she has to be to survive this hard life. Early on, she pulls a gun and fires into Lila’s trailer to get her to come out and give her the keys to the car Lila has stolen, and seems to think no more of it than anything else she’s had to do that day. This is not a thriller movie, there is no “Eliza Crossing the Ice” scene a la Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but the tension mounts to a pitch that actually drove Lee from the room; she couldn’t bear to watch it.
You sort of know this is not going to lead to ice cream and red roses. The best you can hope for is a small victory here and there, and maybe neither of them will get killed. That’s all I need to say about that. I think this should have been on the Best Picture short list. It was filmed on a shoestring in 24 days when it never got above freezing. I’ll bet Chapstick was a major part of the budget. It is a first feature, written and directed by Courtney Hunt, and she has an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay.