In Frozen River, the veteran actress Melissa Leo has one of those faces that's all creases and hollows and weather-roughened valleys. As Ray, who lives in a dingy, broken-down trailer home in upstate New York with her two sons (and, when he's around, her louse of a husband), Leo looks as if life has been beating her up from almost the moment she was born. She's desolate, all right, but she isn't weak. Her don't-mess-with-me glare, all bones and sinew, is that of a woman who can't afford femininity, whose existence has been melted down to pure survival. (She's like a Bonnie Raitt who has been around the block more times than the real one.) I first saw Leo playing a teenage hooker in the grubby little 1985 exploitation picture Streetwalkin', and even there (she was in her mid-20s), she had a sullen charge that pierced the film's phony surface. In Frozen River, Leo's acting has a brittle severity and power. Every moment of her performance feels torn from experience, and so does the movie, which finds a suspense in broken lives that are hanging in the balance.
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