The Oscar-nominated performance of Melissa Leo is only one reason to see this gripping movie about some of the most down-and-out people ever portrayed in an American film. Shot in the seemingly godforsaken territory of northern New York State near the Canadian border, the bleak landscape of snow and ice suggests desperation and the end of the road. Citizens and aliens live in trailers and campers on both sides of the border of the Mohawk "Rez," a land of disentitlement, poverty, and lawlessness. These are people—"trailer trash"—that most of us don’t know, which makes the movie all the more important for revealing their lives to us in full and sympathetic dimensions.
Melissa plays Ray, a prematurely aged 30-something mother of two boys. Ray works part time at the Yankee Dollar store, feeding the boys on popcorn and Tang while her husband gambles away the money they were saving to purchase her dream—a double-wide trailer with a Jacuzzi. When he disappears altogether, and Ray faces Christmas Eve with no presents for the boys and the promise of the double-wide vanishing, an opportunity presents itself in the unlikely form of a young, chubby, nearsighted Mohawk single mother (Lila) who earns fistfuls of cash smuggling illegals into the country from Canada by driving across the frozen river and bringing them back in the trunk of whatever car she has managed to beg, borrow, or steal. The police do not bother to interrupt this trade because it takes place in Mohawk country, where there is no border between legal and illegal activity. Ray's car is just what Lila needs, and splitting Lila's rolls of money is just what Ray needs.
The movie was shot on something less than a shoestring in 24 days, using local Mohawks as actors, with film crew members filling in the non-speaking parts. The musical score is both haunting and unobtrusive. In other words, this is the very opposite of a commercial film, and is all the more impressive for it.
Although Ray holds center stage, the development of Lila as a character is really the principal theme of the movie. Lila’s year-old son has been taken from her by her in-laws, and she has developed a persona of stoic, expressionless impassivity. She maintains this front throughout the drama until almost the very end, when Ray performs a sacrificial act that opens the door to a future for Lila—and indeed, for them both. But the moment in the film that I wish to highlight comes earlier. The two women are smuggling in two Pakistanis who are carrying a bundle. Ray is enraged by this; she is willing to smuggle Chinese but not people she suspects of being suicide bombers. She stops in the middle of the frozen river, grabs the bundle from the back seat, and leaves it on the ice. When they arrive at their destination on the other side, they discover that the bundle was in fact a snugly wrapped infant.
Back they go to retrieve the bundle, Ray driving the car as usual and Lila as passenger in the front seat. When they find it, Ray instructs Lila to hold it and keep it warm as they drive back over the ice. Lila says, "It’s dead." Ray says maybe it’s just cold, and urges Lila to hold it close. "The baby is dead," Lila insists with her characteristic lack of affect. "Whatever," says Ray, but tells her to hold it anyway. When they are almost back across the river, Lila sees that the baby is moving. Ray says, "Hello, little baby," sweetly, with a flicker of a smile. They deliver the baby to the Pakistani mother. As they drive back to their decrepit respective "homes," Lila says again, "The baby was dead." Ray says no, it was just cold. "The baby was dead," Lila insists. "Whatever," says Ray, and then, "See, you brought it to life." Looking straight ahead with her unyieldingly stolid expression, Lila says, "It wasn't me. It was the Creator." (The English subtitles, interestingly, capitalize "Creator.")
My mind went to the story of the prophet Elisha and the son of the Shunammite woman who was restored to life by God through the warmth of the prophet's body (II Kings 4:18-37). Surely the movie director did not intend such a reference, but the words given to Lila to speak are astonishing. Did she mean to refer to some Mohawk creator? I'd just as soon not go in that direction. For a Christian, Lila's refusal to agree with Ray that no miracle had occurred points to the God who raises the dead and calls into being the things that do not exist. Without going into further details I will just note that something subtly transformative comes over Lila, represented in a subsequent scene by the first suggestion of a smile we have seen on her hitherto expressionless face; and the movie ends with the melting of the snow and a hint of a new family coming into being. I'll never pass a trailer camp again without thinking of Ray and Lila and the life-giving power of our Creator.
P.S. I have seen the movie twice but have not been able to hear clearly what is said at one point about Christian converts. The most I was able to gather is that some Mohawk converts are not celebrating Christmas. Ray protests that it is terrible to deprive children of Santa Claus. This reminds me of a saying precious to me: a young clergy colleague of mine who had very young children said that he thought Santa Claus was a way of training a child's mind for transcendence. I agree (see previous Rumination on Muggles.)
Originally posted on 2/17/2009 in Ruminations