~Frozen River/The Visitor

Film Review
April 11, 2008 by JAN ALBERT

Sometimes two films come your way at the same time, totally unrelated and yet drawn together by synchronicity, they inform and amplify each other in some way. Such is the case with FROZEN RIVER, which I saw as part of the NEW DIRECTORS, NEW FILMS series, and THE VISITOR.

Both stories revolve around the desperate plight of illegal immigrants in America, but there’s nothing didactic about either one. Both take place in New York, one – way upstate, the other – right here in the Big Apple. Both star character actors who have always stood out from the crowd, but have never gotten the chance to shine center stage. Melissa Leo and Richard Jenkins grab their moment with both hands and deliver exceptionally memorable performances.

Frozen River

FROZEN RIVER, written and directed by first time feature director Courtney Hunt won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance this year. It is a tense slice of life from the tough day-to-day existence of trailer mom, Ray Eddy. Hunt often puts her confidence in a picture to tell the story, since the people in this world are not big gabbers. She starts in the stark bitter cold morning, panning slowly from Ray’s tattooed toe up to her ravaged face. The combination of her clothing, her hopeless expression and the resigned tears she wipes away, tell you a lot right off. Entering the dumpy trailer nearby and seeing her interact with her sweet little boy, then straining to communicate with the smart teenage son (a fine performance by Charley McDermott) from whom she can no longer hide how deeply messed up things are, you’ve got the whole picture. Ray is a mother she-wolf trapped in a hole of abject poverty in one of the richest nations in the world.

When her husband, a compulsive gambler, takes their nest egg and splits for Atlantic City just before Christmas, Ray is left broke. She has a shit job that pays just enough to feed her sons Tang and popcorn around the clock and she is reduced to scrounging up quarters to buy gas. Some of the best moments are tiny ones: Ray with a bunch of coins in her hand requesting $2.74 in gas, then finding a $5 bill at the bottom of her purse and triumphantly announcing, “Make that $7.74!”.

It’s while searching for her husband at the Bingo game the Mohawk Indian tribe runs on the nearby rez, that she meets up with Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham’s impassive eyes and beautiful face make for some very compelling close ups), a young Native American who is trying to steal her car.

Hunt uses equally economical brushstrokes to establish that Lila is estranged from her own people and views the white citizens who share the town as an alien tribe. Turns out Lila is making money by smuggling illegal immigrants over the frozen St. Lawrence River from Canada to N.Y. Ray wants in on the money and these two desperados team up to carry even more desperate people to the U.S. in the trunk of Ray’s car, delivering them to a motel where they will perhaps work as slave labor.

Ray and Lila, who previously wouldn’t have given each other the time of day, begin to learn the details of each other’s lives while crossing again and again with Chinese and Pakistani refugees squeezed in the trunk. If they don’t get caught and jailed by the border police and the icy river doesn’t crack and swallow them up, this could be their ticket to financial freedom. After coming through one near disaster of epic proportions, they begin to trust each other. Then comes another moment of reckoning.

Courtney Hunt makes you care about the place and the people who inhabit it – both the citizens marginalized by their own country and the foreigners taking such desperate measures to start their lives over here. This small story, so specific and yet completely universal, has the power to move film lovers around the globe. It opens nation wide in August – keep your eyes peeled for it.


Visitor # 1
Haaz Sleiman in Overture Films’ THE VISITOR (2008)

visitor # 2
Richard Jenkins and Haaz Sleiman in Overture Films’ THE VISITOR (2008)

THE VISITOR, which opens this Friday, takes place right here in NYC but presents a parallel world that most of us barely notice. It’s the world of people from the four corners of the earth here illegally, living and raising families, selling handmade goods on the street, playing music, driving gypsy cabs, and making New York City their home.

Our window into this world comes from a depressive professor, attending a conference at NYU and planning to use the Manhattan apartment he has barely visited since his wife died a few years ago.

Walter Vale arrives to find flowers in a vase on the piano and a beautiful African woman in the bathtub. Her Syrian boyfriend flies through the door seconds later and begins to pound on Walter who he thinks is an intruder. After everyone takes a deep breath, it emerges that they have been rented the apartment by a swindler. They prepare to clear out when the professor (played by perennial supporting actor, Richard Jenkins, who you will recognize as the deceased dad in Six Feet Under and from dozens of movie roles ) takes a leap of faith and declares there is room enough for all of them to stay. Jenkins is perfect as a sad sack doing his best to disappear into the shadows until this chance encounter cracks open his world.

This is the 2nd film from Tom McCarthy, whose debut, The Station Agent, made a splash a few years ago. That film was filled with quirky little asides from the main story and so is this one – a charming scene where Walter collects his mail and meets a gay neighbor who was once the little boy who took piano lessons from his wife exists as a showy moment for Richard Kind, but also points up Walter’s extreme isolation and lack of engagement with other people. Another aside features Zainab, the African woman, selling her jewelry in Soho to a well meaning but clueless woman (Deborah Rush) who starts gabbing about her trip to South Africa (even though Zainab is from Senegal, hundreds of miles away) and reducing all Africans to vacation fodder.

Tarek, the charming young Syrian musician (played by Lebanese actor, Haaz Sleiman in a star-making performance), who along with Zainab has been residing in Walter’s apartment, plays the drum professionally. Through a series of wonderfully understated scenes, Walter responds first to Tarek’s music, then to his ebullient personality. Tarek insists on thanking Walter for his kindness by teaching him how to drum, then invites him to see him perform at a small club in the village. The three roommates fall into a regular pattern of shared meals and conversation, which culminates with Tarek giving Walter his own drum and introducing him to the spontaneous drum circle that gathers in Central Park.

McCarthy very cleverly plays on the mistrust and paranoia that exist as a fact of life these days. I kept expecting lovely Tarek to reveal himself as an international sleeper cell agent, but that’s not where this movie is going. In a stroke of rotten luck, Tarek is picked up in a random subway sweep by undercover cops and disappears into a hell hole of bureaucracy. He is indefinitely detained and held for deportation.

Walter launches himself into the mission of saving his new friend with a passion he didn’t know he had. He helps keep Zanaib (who cannot visit Tarek, or she too will be picked up by immigration authorities) together, gets Tarek an immigration lawyer, and meets Tarek’s beautiful mother, a widow he develops a circumspect crush on.

It’s a muted happy end when a sad guy whose just been marking the days starts looking forward to waking up again, while two vibrant young New Yorkers have their joy temporarily extinguished. In between, they have made an unlikely, but one would hope not impossible, connection with someone they might pass on the subway but under most circumstances never talk to.

see: THE VISITOR/trailer

Both THE VISITOR and FROZEN RIVER nudge us to consider the whole world of human beings out there that aren’t so very different than us and remind us to open our eyes to the people right under our noses.

FROZEN RIVER opens nation wide August 1 – put it on your calendar.
THE VISITOR opens Friday – enjoy.