The Frozen Ground is a disturbing true story about Robert Hansen, an Alaskan serial killer who stalked, kidnapped and killed at least 17 women in the 1980s. But despite an all-star cast, solid performances and a well-crafted bleak, dreary atmosphere, it felt like a run-of-the-mill, straight-to-DVD thriller that may have been held back by trying too hard to adhere to real-life events.
The narrative follows Nicholas Cage, who plays Sgt Jack Halcombe, a righteous detective who sets out to find the killer and end his 13-year killing spree but has difficulty collecting the evidence necessary to put him away. Enter 17-year-old Cindy Poulson, played by Vanessa Hudgens, a local stripper/prostitute who managed to escape the killer once following a brutal encounter but is too neglected and afraid to step forward.
The interesting thing is, the police have had a suspect the whole time, Robert Hansen, who is chillingly portrayed by John Cusack. They just don’t have what it takes to arrest and convict him. So the challenge for Halcombe is essentially to gather that evidence, which includes coaxing Cindy to assist, while also protecting her from Hansen.
There really isn’t anything “wrong” with The Frozen Ground, written and directed by Scott Walker. The atmosphere is great, with the icy chill of Alaska mixing well with the dark tones and grim feel. There are moments of tension and drama (mostly involving Hudgens), and the acts of a deranged psychopath like Hansen always make for compelling viewing. The performances are excellent, and watching this film almost makes you remember that Nicholas Cage is an Oscar-winning actor who once turned down roles instead of appearing in every turd that comes his way. Vanessa Hudgens also looks and feels like a great stripper/prostitute with real psychological and emotional scars, and I mean that as a compliment. I suppose this film and Spring Breakers is her Jennifer Aniston-esque attempt to destroy her “good girl” image (though I thought those leaked nude pics had done that already…). Last but not least, John Cusack, who I’m almost always used to playing the charismatic good guy. Here he is creepy, calculating and silently vicious — completely making me forget that he and Cage once made an awesome duo in Con Air.
The problem with The Frozen Ground is that it’s too generic and straightforward, so much so that it feels like a glamorized feature length version or an extended finale of an episode of Law & Order (probably SVU). We know fairly early on that Hansen is the killer, and the revelations that follow — mostly interrogations and property searches — all come with an air of predictability. There are no exciting discoveries or twists and only a handful of sequences that could be considered “action”, the result of what I am assuming is an effort to align the story with what really happened as much as possible. We often complain about filmmakers abusing their “artistic license” when it comes to true stories, and this film is the opposite. Without being disrespectful to the real-life victims, this is a story that lacked genuine intrigue and excitement.
Overall, this is a well-acted, well-executed true crime thriller without a lot of thrills, and despite the chilly atmosphere comes across as too bland to be memorable. Probably would have been a straight-to-DVD flick (a pretty decent one, mind you) but for the A-list cast.
3 stars out of 5