The Frozen Ground
2013, 105mins, 15
Director: Scott Walker
Writer: Scott Walker
Cast includes: Nicolas Cage, John Cusack, Vanessa Hudgens, 50 Cent, Radha Mitchell
UK Release Date: 19th July 2013
“The Frozen Ground” isn’t a picture that inspires much confidence on paper. A director making his feature debut, starring Nicolas Cage, John Cusack (both coming off several clunkers), Vanessa Hudgens and most tellingly 50 Cent. Not exactly a titillating proposition. “The Frozen Ground” revolves around the Robert Hansen case of the 70s & 80s, a reclusive serial killer responsible for the death of dozens of Alaskan women. Film-maker Scott Walker cribs a lot from the David Fincher handbook for his visual presentation, but the effort actually manages a surprising degree of sincerity and thespian respectability in its attempt to honour the victims of Hansen’s spree. It’s a workmanlike feature on the whole, but “The Frozen Ground” does attain a certain quantity of genre appeal, a solid procedural with a familiar but polished style.
Having narrowly escaped a murderous assault, Cindy Paulson (Vanessa Hudgens) is brought to the attention of Alaskan state police, notably Jack Halcombe (Nicolas Cage). Halcombe is weeks away from retirement, but becomes embroiled in the case when Cindy offers the name Robert Hansen (John Cusack) as the identity of her abductor, a local family man with an unusually problematic history of violent and psychologically offbeat behaviour. As several other bodies are uncovered in the Alaskan wilderness, the product of the same killer, Halcombe begins to suspect Hansen is his man, but evidence is short on the ground. Cindy is uneasy about testifying, undergoing a strained and grimy existence selling herself on the streets, whilst Hansen appears to be covering his tracks with the impeccable touch of a pro. Battling against the killer’s intelligence, Cindy’s fear and his own personal issues, Halcombe attempts to bring evil to justice.
“The Frozen Ground” is wastes no time in informing viewers of its connection to true events, Walker unveiling the extent of Hansen’s villainy pretty early in proceedings. This isn't a twisty whodunit, but rather a recount of vile criminal activity, and on those grounds it’s moderately fetching. Walker concocts credible atmosphere utilizing the barren and ominous stretches of wilderness where Hansen murdered his victims and seedy streets and bars riddled with scumbags and helpless hookers, hardly imbuing “The Frozen Ground” with a hopeful aura. It’s a picture that very much commits to the damning of Hansen and his bloodthirsty yearnings, Walker credibly depicting a community and town (Anchorage) where the fiend’s shadow looms large. Right from the start Walker pummels the audience with graphic, grittily photographed and creepy imagery, maintaining the aggressively bleak palette for the movie’s entirety.
Walker is invariably a better director than a writer, as evidenced by the story’s scattershot structure. In the first and second acts huge swathes of backroom speculation and exposition are swapped, most of it important, not all of it easily absorbed. Strangely Walker often seems much more focused on the character of Cindy (played believably by a committed Hudgens), basking in the depressing challenges of prostitution and stripper woes. Hudgens convinces beyond her years, combining steely ignorance and devastating vulnerability cogently, allowing individual instances in her own sad narrative to find a degree of poignant tragedy. The film-maker and actress convincingly render these moments intimate and unsettling, but at the expense of the wider tale. Whilst it may have damaged the substance of Hudgens’ work, one does feel a tighter fixation on the criminal facet might have allowed “The Frozen Ground” to leave a firmer stamp on the genre. As it stands it’s strong for large isolated stretches, but messy as a whole.
Cage and Cusack don’t set the world on fire, but they’re better here than they have been for a while. Cage is working the more restrained and human angle, forcing most of his energy into building a solemn rapport with Hudgens. It never quite gels, but that’s more the fault of superficial bonding material (shallow shared familial traumas) than either’s performance. Cusack occasionally threatens to push the psycho loner shtick a bit far, but generally finds an eerie and watchable balance, especially during the final interrogation portion with Cage. Cusack builds from confident liar to caged animal organically and with dramatic rhythm, bringing a fierier side out in Cage as a consequence. Gifted Australian actress Radha Mitchell is wasted as Cage’s shrill spouse, but for the most part the casting is serviceable. Well, aside from one notable exception. Not only does he manage to have the most ludicrous hairstyle in a feature that also stars Nic Cage (a genuine achievement), 50 Cent also indulges stupid stereotypes and mannerisms in his “pimpin’” portrayal of Hudgens’ professional overlord. The rapper drags a few promising scenes down with him, his inclusion a miscalculation from Walker’s perspective.
“The Frozen Ground” ends with a slideshow tribute of the murdered, a slew of innocent young women, left in lifeless ruin by an evil maniac. It’s a touching and affecting supplement and one that almost unequivocally proves Walker’s heart was in the right place. Artistically “The Frozen Ground” is a patchy work, but there are spare moments of inspiration and flair, which coupled with its reverence and goodwill insist it deserves a passing grade. Ultimately it is DVD fodder, but I guess in a quiet sort of a way that still marks a semi-recommendation.
A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2013