Sony Pictures Classics
Melissa Leo and Michael O'Keefe in the drama "Frozen River." Leo stars as a woman reluctantly drawn into a smuggling scheme.
FROZEN RIVER — *** — Melissa Leo, Misty Upham, Charlie McDermott; rated R (violence, profanity, slurs, brief drugs, brief gore, vulgarity, nude art)

Basically decent people do horrible things for what they believe are the right reasons in "Frozen River." In fact, some of the things the characters in this film do are pretty appalling.

Normally, that would be the kiss of death for a movie, since those kinds of actions would render characters unlikable or unsympathetic. But there's something peculiarly appealing about this independently produced feature, which is equal parts thriller and drama.

Perhaps it's the film's low-key tone and realistically gritty look. And it's a good vehicle for actress Melissa Leo. She plays Ray Eddy, a struggling New York state woman whose gambling addict husband has just run off with much-needed money and one of the couple's cars.

While Ray isn't able to track him down, she does find the vehicle in the parking of a Mohawk casino. It's been "appropriated" by Lila White Wolf (Misty Upham), a casino worker who wants to use the car to transport illegal immigrants from Canada to the United States.

(Lila is bypassing the highway in favor of a dangerous, frozen lake that runs though Mohawk land in New York and in Quebec.)

Ray is appalled when Lila suggests that they become smuggling partners, but once she gets money in her hands, she reluctantly agrees to the scheme.

The justification she's using is that she needs to buy Christmas presents, not to mention a new home for her two children (Charlie McDermott and James Reilly).

First-time screenwriter/director Courtney Hall does leave a few plot threads dangling, and there are a couple of problematic story holes.

She is bailed out to a certain degree by a really good cast. Leo is terrific as the increasingly desperate Ray, even though that's to be expected from the veteran television actress ("Homicide: Life on the Street," among others).

As for Upham, she's a little aloof but is fine as Lila. The real surprise here is McDermott, who's appropriately surly as Ray's conniving teenage son.

"Frozen River" is rated R for some strong violent action (gunplay, vehicular mayhem and violence against women), strong sexual language (profanity and slang), derogatory language, including racial slurs, brief drug references, brief gore, lewd dancing, and glimpses of nude art (a neon sign). Running time: 97 minutes.

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