Homicide: Life On The Street’s Melissa Leo is literally on thin ice in this 2008 Sundancer, an atmospheric indie from writer-director Courtney Hunt thrust into the limelight earlier this year by two unexpected but deserved Oscar nominations.
The slow-burning tale of a cash-poor mother-of-two who becomes a reluctant human traficker on the US-Canadian border, this gritty yarn – much of which involves two women gingerly driving across the frozen St Lawrence river with illegal immigrants stashed in the boot – at times resembles Thelma & Louise in a parka.
As the tough, resourceful Ray, though, Leo quickly shows why she landed that Academy Award nod in a film that succeeds equally as a taut thriller and a female buddy movie.
The Geena Davis to Leo’s Susan Sarandon is Native American Misty Upham, who plays Lila Littlewolf, a Mohawk who exploits her reservation’s frontier-straddling territory to sneak undesirables across it.
Newly deserted by her gambler husband, Ray’s ideally placed to accompany Lila on these jaunts, nocturnal missions over treacherous terrain.
Suspicion melts into grudging respect as the ladies learn they have more in common than they first thought. When things go tits-up, though, will it be every smuggler for herself?
Hunt – whose screenplay deservedly picked up River’s other Golden Baldie nod – keeps the action spare and gripping, especially during a sequence when Ray and Lila discover they have accidentally left a baby out in the snow. By its close, though, her film has thawed into something rather different: a touching portrait of solidarity, self-sacrifice and simple human decency.
Some might find this a disappointingly low-key ending to a story that had seemed headed in a more dramatic trajectory. Yet it’s in keeping with a feature whose entire ethos – from producer Heather Rae and DoP Reed Morano to cutter Kate Williams – is about sisters carrying the can.
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Leo and Upham make an unlikely double act in a finely written, well-played film with a striking plot and setting. Hunt’s clearly a name to watch; Leo, meanwhile, can look forward to finally getting the recognition, and roles, she deserves.