The Frozen Ground (2013)
“The hunter becomes the hunted.”
Director: Scott Walker
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Vanessa Hudgens, John Cusack
Synopsis: An Alaska State Trooper partners with a young woman who escaped the clutches of serial killer Robert Hansen to bring the murderer to justice. Based on actual events.
Having played an irredeemably perverted killer in The Paperboy in 2012, John Cusack stayed on the dark side for his portrayal of 1980s US serial killer Robert Hansen in the Frozen Ground. Hansen was an outwardly respectable resident of Anchorage, Alaska who liked to abduct young women and hunt them down and shoot them in the wilderness after first raping and beating them. Cusack is one of only a handful of actors who can convincingly play both good guys and bad, and his rather bland looks work to his advantage in this sometimes uneven account of Hansen’s downfall.
Rather than focusing on Hansen, however, first-time feature writer and director Scott Walker chooses to tell the story from the points of view of investigating officer Jack Holcombe (Nicolas Cage — Kick-Ass) and 18-year-old prostitute Cindy Paulson (Vanessa Hudgens — Machete Kills), the only one of Hansen’s victims to emerge alive from her encounter with him. Although Paulson reported her abduction to the police, they didn’t believe her, so when Holcombe asks her to help him prove Hansen’s guilt she’s understandably reluctant to co-operate, especially as she already has trust issues after years of being abused by a family member as a child.
A tense situation grows even more dangerous when Paulson and Hansen notice each other in the seedy strip club in which she’s working and he’s a patron. Paulson flees the club, correctly assuming Hansen will have another crack at killing her in order to clear up any loose ends which might come back to haunt him, and it’s this brief encounter which ultimately convinces Paulson to co-operate with Holcombe, who is having to cope with domestic problems while struggling to find any kind of evidence with which to pin the crimes on Hansen. However, although he lost Paulson when she fled the club, Hansen isn’t prepared to leave her alive and enlists the aid of a hit man to make sure she can never testify against him.
The Frozen Ground is a decent movie which would seem to have all the constituent parts necessary to make a great one. It has a quality cast: Cage, who seems increasingly prone to self-indulgent mannerisms in his performances (as if they are an antidote to the sometimes soporific tone of his voice), plays it straight here and does a good job, providing one of his best performances of the last decade, while Cusack underplays his role to emphasise the apparent normality of a family man whose mild-mannered exterior conceals a depraved and sadistic monster. However, they’re both outclassed by Hudgens who captures the requisite mix of toughness and vulnerability necessary to keep the audience on our side. Paulson is no angel, but neither is she a bad person, and Walker’s script does a good job of negotiating a believable path between the two, even though the sometimes lacklustre dialogue calls upon Hudgens’ skills as an actress to inject some authenticity into the words she speaks.
Despite being set in 1983, the film doesn’t feel like it’s set in the 1980s. There’s none of the outlandish fashions and hairstyles to distract us from the business at hand, but neither is there any real feel for the era. Having said that, with its often sleazy settings and low-life characters, the movie itself sometimes feels as if it’s trying to emulate the hard-edged crime thrillers of the 1970s and early ‘80s. But The Frozen Ground was made in 2013, and what was acceptable back in the ‘70s and 80s is often frowned upon today. Walker is wise enough to realise that scenes set in a strip club would be laughable if there was no female nudity on display, but in those scenes the gaze of his camera rests on bare flesh for no longer than a second at a time before coyly cutting away as if ashamed to be caught looking. The Frozen Ground also suffers badly from that curse of modern movies, the shaky-cam. It’s difficult to recall a movie which used the technique so persistently as cinematographer Patrick Murguia does here, and it proves to be a really annoying and distracting drawback to an otherwise solidly crafted thriller — albeit one that never quite realises its potential.