Welcome to FrockTalk, the web’s only costume-based movie review site. The goal of Frocktalk is to shed light on the magnificent artistry of costume design in motion pictures. Reviews on this site are written by working costume designers in the entertainment industry – people who know, better than anyone, what it takes to make it all happen. The focus of FrockTalk is not to comment on the big flashy costume dramas, but to call attention to the seemingly ordinary costume design work in film that silently and persuasively moves the audience toward understanding the characters. Costume design for motion pictures is an art form that deserves more recognition than it usually gets. Fancy, pretty costumes do not always equal effective, appropriate costumes. The art of the costume is in letting the audience know who the character is, before the actor even has a chance to open his mouth. Read on, and enjoy. ** CAUTION: ALL REVIEWS CONTAIN SPOILERS! **

Frozen River

Review Date: 3-29-09
Release Date:  8-1-08
Runtime:  97 min.
Period: contemporary, 2008
Costume Designer:  Abby O’Sullivan

This is a movie that will give you the “Holy Shits”.  It is terrifying, it is sad, it is absorbing, it is bleak, and it is all-too believable in our current economy.  Frozen River is the film that Hollywood wants to make, but can’t make due to the oppressive bureaucracy and filmmaking-by-committee that is de rigeur at studios these days.  Frozen River is a ballsy film with an undiluted vision, and here at Frocktalk, we celebrate its success and its ability to move its audience.

You might have heard of this film – Melissa Leo was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance as trailer-park mom Ray Eddy.  She won the Independent Spirit award for the role, and she is spectacular.  She is the reason that this film is so powerful – her performance is so seamless, it feels like a documentary.  But this is fiction, and screenwriter (and director) Courtney Hunt was also nominated for an Academy Award for best screenplay written directly for the screen.  It’s a compelling story, a great movie, and you need to see it.

This review contains MAJOR spoilers, so please stop reading now if you don’t want to know what happens!!

Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo) is a single mom to two boys, T.J. (Charlie McDermott) and Ricky (James Reilly).  They live in a trailer in rural Massena, NY, a border town with Canada, close to a Mohawk Indian reservation that straddles both countries, an oasis of tribal governance on the border.  Ray’s husband Troy has gambled away their last dollars, and abandoned the family – she is obsessed with the idea of finding him and bringing him home.  It feels like she wants to hold him accountable, but at the same time still loves him and wants him to be around for their boys.

It is wintertime, November – December, and Ray’s job at the Dollar Mart is going nowhere.  She lies to T.J. and tells him that she’s up for a promotion, but we know better.  Ray goes to the Mohawk reservation casino on a hunch and finds her husband’s car in the parking lot.  A Mohawk girl, Lila (Misty Upham), has repossessed the car as payment for Troy’s gambling debts.  Ray tries to tow the car home, but can’t get it to work.  Ray finds out that Lila is involved in smuggling people, human beings, across the border from Canada to the US, by driving them across the frozen river that serves as the border, crossing through protected, sovereign Native American/Canadian tribal land.  It is a tense scene, and a gun is involved.  Ray is strong-armed into driving across the river with Lila to pick up some immigrants, two Chinese men.

As they bring the immigrants back across the river, Lila intimates that they won’t pull Ray and her over, because Ray is driving and she is white.  No one will suspect a thing.  They drop the smuggled immigrants off at a hotel, and receive $2400 for their work.  Big money for someone like Ray.

Meanwhile, life at the trailer is grim – the boys eat popcorn and orange pop for dinner.  The house is grimy and there is no money left, not even in the couch cushions. The boys are left largely unsupervised. T.J., realizing the dire financial situation he and his family face, gets involved in a telephone credit card scam to make money.

Lila has troubles of her own – she had a son who was taken away from her by other relatives, because of her involvement with human smuggling.  She was deemed by the family to be a “bad influence”, so they removed the infant son from her care.  The Mohawk council seems to have an involvement with this, in terms of child protection.  Lila can’t seem to get a legitimate job or even buy a car on the reservation – everyone knows what she is up to, and she is effectively shunned for it.

Ray dreams of one day buying the bigger trailer she was saving for, before Troy ran off with the money.  Smuggling people across the river promises her the money to be able to realize her dream.  Ray and Lila team up for more frozen river trips.

It’s Christmas Eve, and Ray and Lila make a trip across the border for a pair of immigrants, this time a Pakistani couple.  It is snowing like crazy, and as they cram the couple into the trunk, the woman hands them a gym bag, and asks for them to put it in the back seat.  Suspicious, Ray stops the car mid-river and leaves the bag on the ice – something about the bag has given her the heebie jeebies.  When they drop off the immigrants, they realize that there was a baby in the gym bag, and that the baby has been out on the ice in the blizzard for perhaps an hour.

Ray and Lila get back in the car to cross the river again to find the gym bag on the ice.  They find the bag, open it, and find the infant unresponsive.  They blast the heater on the baby, and Lila holds it close to her, trying to warm it.  They speed into the night, back to the hotel where they have dropped the distraught immigrant couple, desperately trying to revive the baby.  Flashing blue and red lights.  A New York State trooper (Michael O’Keefe) pulls them over.  Ray claims that Lila is her kids’ babysitter, and she is giving her a ride home.  The trooper asks Ray to get out of the car.  She has a broken taillight, and she ought to fix it.  He gets back in his truck and drives away, Ray and Lila still holding their breath.

Back at the trailer, T.J. is attempting to fix some frozen pipes using a hand-held blowtorch that had been forbidden him earlier in the film.  He inadvertently sets the trailer on fire, and quickly puts it out with a fire extinguisher.

Ray and Lila arrive at the hotel with what they believe is a dead infant, but everyone is relieved to discover that the child is breathing.  Lila views it as a spiritual resurrection attributable to the Creator.  A Christmas miracle, no matter what you believe.

The next morning, the trooper who pulled Ray over stops by her house.  He informs her that Lila is a known human smuggler.  Ray sees the burn damage to the trailer; their home is unlivable.  Ray and T. J. get into a major fight, which turns into a sad recognition of their shared abandonment.

The baby-on-the-ice incident has spooked Lila.  She says that she is quitting smuggling, but she just needs one more run.  Ray goes to the trailer dealership to make a down payment on her dream home, a new doublewide trailer.  A heat wave is on, and the snow is melting.  Needing the last payment on the dream home, Ray agrees to one more run.

Ray and Lila deal with some nasty French-Canadian smugglers this time, and no one trusts anyone.  The French-Canadian smuggler (Mark Boone Junior) tries to pay them less than the going rate, and a fight ensues.  Ray has her gun out, and she shoots the ground to make a point.  The French-Canadian smuggler shoots at her, grazing her ear.  They take the immigrants (two Chinese women) and hit the road.  The police are soon behind them, and their only escape is to cross the river.  They make it out a few hundred yards, when the ice begins to crack.  They get out of the car, release the two women from the trunk, and make a run for it.

The four are soon abetted by Mohawk natives, who wrap them in blankets to stay warm.  The Mohawk tribal council votes to expel Lila.  Lila agrees to take the rap by herself, and instructs Ray to run across the river, back home.  It’s freezing out, and pitch-black.  Ray runs into the woods, but soon comes back.  Ray asks Lila to take care of her kids, and Lila agrees.  Lila reclaims her son from her other relatives, and leaves the reservation, to live with T.J. and Ricky.  Ray is arrested and taken away in handcuffs; she will serve only four months in jail for the smuggling charge.

Lila arrives at Ray’s trailer in the morning with her infant son.  He plays on the floor with Ricky; they share an interest in HotWheels.  A tribal police officer comes to the trailer, but this time, for T.J.  He makes T.J. apologize to the woman he defrauded using her credit card number.  The doublewide dream trailer arrives.  Lila and the boys are a family.  The end.

This is my favorite kind of genre of costuming to discuss.  To costume these kinds of characters: desperate, down to their last dime, dealing with the limits of their ethics… this is my ideal kind of scenario.  Abby O’Sullivan, who didn’t even get a single card credit, and had only ONE credited costume department co-worker, really deserves kudos for her fine work.  The costume team must have worked their asses off in the cold, and wow, hats off, guys.  I have spent time in this exact part of the world, and can attest that the costumes were accurate for the environment and for the characters.  I am sure that Abby had about five dollars and a postage stamp as a budget, so really – GOOD WORK!

Ray is described beautifully, down to her underwear – mismatched, solid, floral-print, lived-in.  Multiple earring piercings, curled-up bangs with a bad perm, chipped fingernail polish, blotchy skin, tattoos, musty purple bathrobe, patterned sweaters, tight acid-washed jeans, lime green fleece pullover – it’s a WalMart-meets-Salvation Army aesthetic, and it is a true and clear representation of what people in her circumstances look like.  This is subtly done, and pokes no fun at her situation.  Her costumes, like the costumes of The Wrestler, speak to the character’s state of mind (depressed and desperate) and financial situation (dire).  It’s easy to mess this up by over-accessorizing or letting your “designer’s eye” make things look prettier or more put-together than they ought to be.  Ray is realized authentically, and I think her costumes certainly help the audience to understand her character.

There seems to be a clear use of the color purple in the film (not an especially common color to use in films), but I can’t draw a link to its use and a narrative element.  I will have to get in touch with Abby to ask her! Ray’s costumage has a surprising amount of color in it, for someone in such a dreadful situation.  Perhaps the lime green fleece is a nod to her hopefulness?  It can definitely be construed as such, but I’d really like to talk with Abby.   If any of your know her, please have her send me an email! ☺

Lila was described simply and eloquently.  She’s a slightly heavy-set girl with short-cropped black hair and a big attitude.  She wears snug jeans, big black shearling boots, and a short green jacket with fur trim. This is the basis for her uniform, and underneath is an array of t-shirts, shirts, thermal tops and an occasional hooded sweater or sweatshirt, but no jewelry.  It is interesting and good to note that the absence of distinct costume changes helps to describe her financial situation.  She doesn’t have a lot of clothing, so she wears the same garments over and over again.  She only has one winter coat, period.  This is not Beverly Hills.

T.J. & Ricky, Ray’s sons, are heartbreaking in their old clothes.  There are occasional additions of a new “Dollar Store” looking windbreaker, but for the most part, it looks like hand-me-downs, everything softly aged and gloomy.  T.J. wears a necklace, a nice reminder of his dignity, and that’s all there is for the realm of accessories.  Who could afford them?  The color scheme of the costumes for the boys is pretty much drab and depressing, reflecting their lives.  Occasionally there is a pop of color, but again, so seldom do we see this color that perhaps it indicates the sparseness of hope, good times, or fun, in their lives.

The French-Canadian smuggler’s costume was an interesting choice: long black leather duster, purple dress shirt, jeans, looked like maybe cowboy boots?  It was kind of an early 1990s Stevie Ray Vaughn wannabe vibe, interpreted through a Franco-Canadian lens.  This actor looks like a pudgy version of Tom Waits with unruly curly hair, and a scraggly beard.  At first glance, he looks like he could be cuddly, just in his physicality.  But man, when he opens his mouth, watch out – he’s gruesome!  The costume was a nice offset to the actor’s look, creating the unsettling holy-shitness when he starts to go nuts.

The immigrants in the film were sensitively costumed – most of them weren’t wearing nearly enough clothing to keep them warm in the trunk of a car crossing a frozen river.  This costume vulnerability worked very well to underscore the intense danger they faced in making the crossing.  Nice.

The rest of the players – background at the reservation casino, the tribal council, players at the Dollar Store, people of Massena – were all well done.  I’d really like to know how much time and money the costume team had to do this, because I am certain that it was not much, and not much.  They achieved a lot, though, and truly enhanced the movie with their choices.  Great job.  Production design, transpo and art department also deserve a pat on the back – the entire aesthetic of the movie is heartbreaking, and everyone did beautiful work.  This is a movie worth seeing – it will haunt you, and it will move you.  It’s a world we don’t often see in the movies, and I am so glad to be able to share it with you.  Go see it.

— KMB

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