Frozen River + Leave No Trace: The (Avoidable) Melodrama of Poverty

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Frozen River: **
Leave No Trace: ****

This week, we’re going to take a look at two films – one old, one new – that feature protagonists who live in poverty. The first, Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River (2008), tells the story of Ray (Melissa Leo), a mother of two who smuggles illegal immigrants across the U.S.-Canada border in upstate New York. (The premise may sound far-fetched; in reality, however, it’s anything but.) Conversely, Debra Granik’s new film, Leave No Trace, follows Will (Ben Foster) and Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), a homeless father and daughter who illegally live in a public park outside Portland, Oregon. (Again, unfortunately, the premise isn’t as improbable as it might seem.)

To begin with, it’s worth noting that these two movies have several things in common. As mentioned, both of them are to some extent interested in portraying the economic, emotional, and social effects of poverty.[1] In their respective depictions of hardship, furthermore, both films also benefit from remarkably perceptive acting. Leo’s uncompromising turn in River richly deserved its Oscar nomination. In Leave, meanwhile, Foster buries himself in his role with a quiet zeal that’ll leave you simultaneously awed and spooked. And with luck, McKenzie’s mature, achingly moving performance will bring her the same kind of recognition that Granik’s previous works (2004’s Down to the Bone, 2010’s Winter’s Bone) once generated for Vera Farmiga and Jennifer Lawrence.

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

When it comes down to it, however, Leave is the only one of these two films that’s actually good – because despite their numerous similarities, the two of them ultimately approach their respective storylines with vastly different mindsets. To start, River largely plays like a sensationalist melodrama. This is at least partially due to its rather contrived ending. But the movie’s histrionic feel also derives from its overreliance on crude, intrusive close-ups. Directors often speak of the importance of keeping the audience “invested” in a story, but throughout River, Hunt turns that prescription for emotional intimacy into a nauseatingly physical one instead. Her cinematography needlessly adds boldface and italics to a film that otherwise already takes great pains (more on this below) to underline the extent of its characters’ misery.

Exaggerated camerawork aside, the other big problem with River is its dialogue, which suffers from two major flaws. First, a fair amount of it is just exposition: instead of advancing the narrative, the script spends a lot of time either filling in backstory or explaining the ins and outs of the smuggling business. Second, almost every conversation we see explicitly references something financial, be it stolen cash, unpaid bills, paychecks, or the importance of not missing a day of work. Because of this and Hunt’s aforementioned love of close-ups, River ultimately becomes a mere “message movie,” a 90-minute sermon that continually dwells on the twin observations that “these people are poor” and “being poor is terrible.” Hunt seems to believe, in short, that profundity arises from the constant portrayal of hardship, and the overall film pays dearly for this misguided thinking.

Image courtesy of Bleecker Street.

Meanwhile, if River always proves heavy-handed, Leave conversely offers a master class in the art of restraint. To see what this means in practice, you can look at the way each film broaches the fact that its protagonists are poor. River, as mentioned previously, doesn’t exactly conceal Ray’s penury. At the very beginning of the movie, in fact, we watch her haggle with a deliveryman over the $4,372 payment she has to make for a new mobile home, and she also gets into an argument with her older son over the pitifully low salary she receives at her part-time cashier job. Right from the get-go, this continual, upfront talk of money (or lack thereof) thrusts the awfulness of Ray’s economic condition straight into your face, thereby engendering the “message movie” effect described above.

In Leave, on the other hand, you don’t initially find yourself thinking that Will and Tom are “poor.” Granik introduces us to their meager living conditions – the tent they sleep in, the makeshift shelter they eat under – early on. But far from using all this as an excuse to dwell on finances, the first part of Leave instead provides an idealized, mostly rosy depiction of the two’s attempts to “live off the land,” a hermetically sealed portrayal of off-the-grid living that reminds you more of Captain Fantastic and Walden than Bicycle Thieves. It’s only after Will and Tom are arrested some way into the film that someone explicitly mentions that they’re “homeless” – and it’s only then that you finally, consciously realize that they’re “poor.” Here, Granik’s downplaying of Tom and Will’s impoverishment not only hints at how the two of them psychologically cope with their poverty.[2] More importantly, by not placing undue emphasis on their economic hardship, Leave manages to depict the two’s suffering without contracting River’s quasi-fetishistic fixation on misery.    

Image courtesy of Bleecker Street.

Beyond their contrasting approaches to the depiction of poverty, the difference in quality between River and Leave also stems from their diverging narrative structures. On the one hand, the former is built on a decidedly conventional framework. As discussed above, we learn at the film’s start that Ray needs to get enough money to finance her purchase of a new mobile home. And throughout the story, everything she does in the smuggling business serves this end in some way. By setting up and maintaining viewer expectations vis-à-vis Ray’s actions, this quest narrative structure makes River both riveting and easy to follow. But the film’s insistence on operating off such consistent, unidirectional expectations also renders it a bit too neat for comfort; its gradational structure gives it a manufactured feel that it never manages to shake off.

In contrast to all this, you could say that Leave is a film in which “nothing happens.” The trailer, to be sure, makes the movie out to be yet another inspirational drama about people who overcome poverty with the help of caring service workers. But in reality, Tom and Will spend most of the film either evading those workers or aimlessly wandering around the Pacific Northwest. During said wanderings, the two of them never seem to have any particular destination or objective in mind. They meet a lot of people along the way, moreover, but most of these acquaintances drop out of the storyline after a few minutes, such that these encounters don’t carry long-term narrative consequences. And while a director like Hunt would’ve made something out of the fact that Will suffers from PTSD – such a condition, after all, is perfect material for an Oscar-baiting story about beating back trauma – he remains just as mentally unsettled at the end of Leave as he was at the film’s start.

As you could probably guess from the above description, Leave makes more demands on your stamina than most movies; viscerally speaking, it’s far less gripping than the comparatively action-packed River. Yet even if it’s bound to irk some moviegoers (in fact, if IMDb is any guide, it already has), Leave’s loose, anticlimactic, and meandering structure ably speaks to – and in some ways embodies – the purposelessness and muted frustration that Tom and Will feel in their day-to-day existence. Like Xavier Beauvois in The Guardians, in other words, Granik possesses a keen understanding of her characters’ inner worlds; throughout Leave, moreover, she’s willing to do whatever is stylistically necessary to make us experience those worlds firsthand, even if she has to sacrifice watchability in the process. Ultimately, her risk-taking helps imbue Leave with an empathy and poignant authenticity that you simply won’t find anywhere in River.

Image courtesy of Bleecker Street.

***

Frozen River (2008) Leave No Trace (2018)
Starring: Melissa Leo
Misty Upham
Ben Foster
Thomasin McKenzie
Dale Dickey
Running Time: 97 minutes 109 minutes
MPAA Rating: R PG
Produced by: Heather Rae
Chip Hourihan
Anne Harrison
Linda Reisman
Anne Rosellini
Written by: Courtney Hunt Debra Granik
Anne Rosellini
Based on: N/A My Abandonment by Peter Rock
Directed by: Courtney Hunt Debra Granik

***

[1] Neither of these two films, to be sure, is solely interested in poverty. A secondary theme of River, for example, concerns the discrimination that Native Americans regularly encounter in everyday life. And you could make the case that Leave is (among many other things) a depiction of PTSD, a meditation on technology, and an examination of the meaning of individuality.

[2] Namely, this downplaying suggests that the two of them simply don’t think of themselves as being “poor.”