The film is set shortly before Christmas in the North Country of Upstate New York, near the Akwesasne ('Where the Partridge Drums') St. Regis Mohawk Reservation and the border crossing to Cornwall, Ontario. Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo) is a discount store clerk struggling to raise two sons with her husband, a compulsive gambler who has disappeared with the funds she had earmarked to finance the purchase of a double-wide mobile home. While searching for him, she encounters Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham), a Mohawk bingo-parlor employee who is driving his car, which she claims she found abandoned with the keys in the ignition at the local bus station. The two women, who have both fallen on hard economic times, form a desperate and uneasy alliance and begin trafficking illegal immigrants from Canada into the United States across the frozen St. Lawrence River for $1,200 each.
Ray's older son T.J. wants to find a job and help support the family so they can afford to eat something more substantial than popcorn and Tang. He and his mother clash over whether he should remain in high-school and look after his little brother Ricky or drop out to work. To make matters worse, T.J. sets an outside corner of the trailer afire with a torch in an attempt to unfreeze the water pipe. Lila longs for the day she will be able to reclaim and live with her young son, who was taken from her by her mother-in-law immediately after his birth.
Because the women's route takes them from an Indian reservation in the US to an Indian reserve in Canada, they hope to avoid detection by local law-enforcement. However, their problems escalate when they are asked to smuggle a Pakistani couple and Ray, fearful their duffel bag might contain explosives, leaves it behind in sub-freezing temperatures, only to discover it contained their infant baby when they arrive at their destination. She and Lila retrace their route and find the bag and the baby, which Lila insists is dead, but which she revives moments before being reunited with the baby's parents. The experience leaves her shaken, and she announces she no longer wants to participate in the smuggling operation. But Ray, needing just one more crossing to finance the down payment on her mobile home, coerces her into joining her for one last journey.
They pick up two Asian women from a strip club for crossing. When the club owner tries to short them, Ray successfully threatens him with a gun. When she is re-entering her car, the irate club owner retaliates by shooting Ray in the ear. Shaken, her fast and erratic driving catches the attention of the provincial police. Ray tries to elude capture by crossing the frozen river where one of the wheels of the car breaks through the ice. The four women abandon the vehicle and take refuge at the Indian reservation.
Because the police are demanding a scapegoat, the tribal head decides to excommunicate Lila for five years due to her smuggling history which involved the death of her Mohawk husband. Surprised then saddened by the news, Ray gives in to Lila's pleas to go free for the sake of her children. However, running through the woods, Ray has a fit of conscience and returns. Ray gives her share of money to Lila with instructions for taking care of her (Ray's) sons and seeing through purchase plans for a trailer home. Ray and the illegal immigrants are surrendered to the police and a trooper speculates she will have to serve four months in jail. Ray calls her son T.J. to explain what has happened.
Lila pushes her way into her mother-in-law's home and reclaims her infant son. She and the baby show up at the Eddy trailer while T.J. is still on the phone with his jailed mother. In a day scene, T.J. completes the welding of a bicycle-propelled carousel bearing his younger brother and Lila's strapped in baby. He pedals the carousel while Lila smiles on. A truck nears carrying the new trailer home.Melissa Leo as Ray Eddy
Misty Upham as Lila Littlewolf
Charlie McDermott as Troy "T.J." Eddy, Jr.
Michael O'Keefe as State Trooper Finnerty
Mark Boone Junior as Jacques Bruno
James Reilly as Ricky Eddy
Dylan Carusona as Jimmy
Jay Klaitz as Guy Versailles
Michael Sky as Billy Three Rivers
John Canoe as Bernie Littlewolf
In an interview screenwriter/director Courtney Hunt conducted shortly before the film's release, she discussed its prevalent theme of a mother's love for her children being a culturally universal trait. She stated the most important moment in her life was the birth of her daughter and how that event made all her other goals lesser priorities. By showing how such intimacy knows no bounds, culturally or socially, Hunt said she hoped her film would enable audiences to break down their assumptions about others around them.
Hunt's husband is from Malone, New York. Whenever the two visited his family they heard stories about Mohawks smuggling cigarettes by driving across the Saint Lawrence River when it freezes. She thought the concept was an interesting subject for a film but had a hard time getting any financial backers because so few people knew about the issue. She met cinematographer Marc Blandori and actress Melissa Leo at the FilmColumbia 2003 Film Festival in Chatham, New York and both agreed to join the project, which prompted some interest from investors. The first effort was a short film shot at Akwesasne near Massena, New York. Hunt showed it at several festival screenings and shopped it to producers until she finally acquired enough funding for a feature film. Frozen River was shot in sub-freezing temperatures on location in Clinton County and Beekmantown and in the area around Plattsburgh over a period of twenty-four days in March 2007.
The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was shown at the MoMA Film Exhibition, the Seattle International Film Festival, the Provincetown International Film Festival, the Nantucket Film Festival, the Melbourne International Film Festival, and the Traverse City Film Festival. Sony Pictures Classics paid $500,000 for the rights to distribute the film in North America and some other territories . The film eventually grossed $2,511,476 in limited theatrical release in the United States and $2,621,734 in foreign markets for a total worldwide box office of $5,133,210.
Critical reception was very positive and the film received an aggregate of 87% on the review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes and a collective score of 82 on Metacritic. The film appeared on many lists citing the best films of 2008, including those in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter, the New York Post, The Miami Herald, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the New York Times, and the Chicago Reader. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave Frozen River four stars (out of four) and called it "one of those rare independent films that knows precisely what it intends, and what the meaning of the story is." while Stephen Holden wrote in the New York Times on August 1, 2008, that "Leo’s magnificent portrayal of a woman of indomitable grit and not an iota of self-pity makes “Frozen River” a compelling study of individual courage" and "If “Frozen River” is a social realist film, it has no political axes to grind."
Frozen River was released in anamorphic widescreen format on DVD on February 10, 2009. It has an audio track in English and subtitles in French. Bonus features include an audio commentary by screenwriter/director Courtney Hunt and producer Heather Rae and the original trailer.