Taking chances with a ‘Frozen’ life

Frozen River is playing Oct. 29 through Nov. 5 at the Nickelodeon. Rated R for language.

RAY EDDY, the character played by Melissa Leo in “Frozen River,” could be anywhere from 35 to 50 years old.

You can’t judge by her complexion — Ray is all wrinkles and rawness thanks to years of exposure to vicious cold winds and cigarette smoke. She has a teenage son, but she also has a 5- year-old. And then there are the tattoos.

She may look tough, but as “Frozen River” begins, Ray is at the tearful end of her rope. Her husband — a gambling addict we never see — has vanished with the money she was saving for the down payment on a new doublewide.

A trip to the Indian-run bingo hall in upstate New York confirms that her no-good spouse has been there, but he left on the morning bus for parts unknown. With Christmas coming, what’s a desperate mother to do?

In writer/director Courtney Hunt’s impressive debut, the answer lies in a very specialized crime.

Ray lives near the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation, which straddles the U.S.-Canadian border. Through Lila (Misty Upham), a young Mohawk woman, Ray discovers there’s money to be made smuggling illegals into the United States.

She picks up the human contraband in Canada, stows them in her car trunk, then drives across the frozen St. Lawrence River. As long as the ice holds and they don’t run into any troopers, it’s an easy payday.

At first Ray is reluctant to get involved, but Lila claims that the activity is merely “free trade between nations” and that U.S. law doesn’t apply to Indian land.

These two dissimilar women — initially all they have in common is poverty — form an uneasy alliance. Lila, who already has one conviction for smuggling, knows the ropes. Ray has the wheels and unlike the myopic Lila, she can see to drive.

“Frozen River” alternates between Ray’s sometimes nail-biting adventures as a smuggler, her growing friendship with the childlike Lila (the unwed mother of a baby she rarely sees) and the aching banalities of everyday life.

Ray’s day job at a dollar store is a never-ending panoply of indignities. Her older boy (Charlie McDermott) blames her for his father’s flight. Trying to unfreeze a frozen pipe, he nearly burns down their mobile home.

Christmas is approaching, and the little guy (James Reilly) has decided he wants a toy way out of their price range. “Frozen River” is a compact slice-of-life drama. It gives the excellent Leo (perhaps best known as a regular on TV’s “Homicide”) an opportunity to portray a fragile- yet-determined woman who makes some bad decisions but never loses her sense of right.

You couldn’t call it a happy movie, but it’s an absorbing one.