The state of Melissa Leo’s complexion has become something of a leitmotif within the press coverage and critical reception of Frozen River. Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly opens his praise-filled review by noting that Leo has “one of those faces that’s all creases and hollows and weather-roughened valleys.” The New York Times’ Karen Durbin conjures Medusa when assessing Leo’s character’s “gullied face framed by terrible hair… with bangs that coil wormlike across her forehead.” But respect, not horror, seems the appropriate reaction; Durbin considers “the weird pleasure of seeing how bad Ms. Leo is willing to look for the camera,” while Variety’s Robert Koehler admiringly writes of Leo being “unafraid to show herself weathered by the cold, harsh elements.” There’s nothing inherently inaccurate about these statements. With pronounced lines framing thin, pursed lips and eyes that sit between angular brows and prominent bags, Leo indeed falls just outside the norms of mainstream Hollywood beauty; though from certain angles, she could be Susan Sarandon’s earthy younger sister. And while equating purportedly diminished physical attributes with actorly skill and artistic bravery has always seemed a dubious proposition, writer-director Courtney Hunt has unquestionably done little to gussy Leo up for the camera. The actress’s unadorned countenance remains at the mercy of the not particularly glamorizing, grainy DV camera.
Yet something feels off between the media reaction to Leo’s on-screen appearance and the film’s treatment of her character. Critics and journalists reaffirm conventional standards of prettiness by so vividly illustrating Leo’s evident nonconformity with them, and then condescendingly congratulate her for not noticeably beautifying herself for the camera. The strength of Frozen River lies in its unblinking acceptance of the weight its protagonist’s hardscrabble, hand-to-mouth existence silently exerts upon her. The gaze of Hunt’s camera may be unvarnished, but it’s not unforgiving. Click here to read all of Matt Connolly’s review of Frozen River.