Well-Acted Frozen Ground a Solid Procedural
Cindy Paulsen (Vanessa Hudgens) has a story to tell, but it isn’t one the authorities are particularly interested in listening to. She’s claiming that Robert Hansen (John Cusack), a respected family man and business owner, kept her captive, tortured her, did unspeakable things to her body and, when all was said and done, took her out into the wilderness in order to have an impromptu hunt. Problem is, as a High School dropout, junkie, stripper and sometime streetwalker, no one wants to take Cindy’s word for any of this, and so even though he’s guilty, Hansen is back out on the streets as if nothing had ever happened.
Enter Sgt. Jack Halcombe (Nicolas Cage). He’s supposed to be coming to the end of his time as an Alaska homicide detective. He and his is wife Allie (Radha Mitchell), along with the remainder of their family, are moving out of state in order to pursue new opportunities, ones free of death and tragedy. But another murder of a seemingly worthless nobody doesn’t sit well with the detective, especially when he learns of Paulsen’s existence. Seeking her out, listening to her story, Halcombe begins to put the pieces together, slowly coming to the horrific realization Hansen’s trail of terror is far longer and filled with many more bodies than anyone ever could have imagined.
Based on the real story behind the capture and conviction of Alaska’s most notorious serial killer, The Frozen Ground is a solid and involving procedural that gets the job done. The first scripted piece of entertainment the real Cindy Paulsen has given her blessing to, writer/director Scott Walker has done a fine job of streamlining all of the numerous tangents of the saga into one cohesive whole. The film holds the viewer’s attention extremely well, and while everything does indeed build to a rather forgone conclusion (it’s not exactly a secret what happens), getting there still manages to be a disturbingly satisfying trip.
There are still times where it’s difficult to get past the fact the movie often feels like more of an elongated episode of something like AMC’s “The Killing” than it does anything else. The film doesn’t transcend the genre, doesn’t craft complex characters or situations in the same vein as say David Fincher’s Zodiac did with such brilliance or even a good-not-great joint Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam managed to do so effortlessly back in 1999. There is rudimentary quality to the core story’s dramatics that are a little underwhelming, and as great everything looks and as nicely as it is acted the film never does anything incredible enough to rise to a level beyond the comfortably familiar.
All the same, I liked this movie. Cage hasn’t been this engaged in ages, delivering an actual performance filled with nuances and shadings the likes of which he used to be known for but as of late hasn’t bothered to showcase all that often (Kick-Ass and The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans being notable exceptions). Playing the film’s only fictional character (Halcombe is a combination of a few detectives who were key in cracking the case), he brings an urgent authenticity to the proceedings. He’s terrific, and as reminders of the man’s acting talents are concerned his turn here is certainly a solid reminder of how good the Oscar-winner can be when he wants to be.
Cusack is also good, underplaying Hansen so effectively the result is insidiously uncomforting. But the surprise is Hudgens, the former Disney High School Musical darling proving that her solid, nakedly raw turn in Spring Breakers was hardly a fluke. She becomes Paulsen, giving so much of herself it becomes difficult to know where the character begins and the performance ends. She disappears with magnetic effortlessness, and where once upon a time I thought of Hudgens as being nothing more than a pleasantly disarming pretty face now I’m starting to believe she’s got real, untapped talents directors might want to begin to take note of.
Walker’s script is forced to cram an awful lot of material into a rather short time frame, and it’s hard to get past the thought Hansen’s story would have been better served if another hour had been added to the running time. The last 30 minutes is annoyingly rushed, so much information being imparted and so many different supporting characters popping up it all gets rather cluttered. Tension frustratingly vanishes as the climax inches closer to conclusion, never a good thing as far as thrillers are concerned, and as such I was never as worried about Clausen’s welfare as I felt I should have been.
With that being the case, I can’t say The Frozen Ground is a movie I feel like audiences should be seeking out to see theatrically. But on DVD or Blu-ray? Or even OnDemand? Heck yeah, I can throw out a hardy recommendation if that’s the case. The acting is strong, Hudgens’s tour de force portrait of youthful self-destruction and terror particularly so, while Walker shows undeniable skill behind the camera engineering a couple of crackerjack set pieces. While the film rarely transcends its procedural genre roots, it does hold one’s attention and, even better, it consistently entertains. This is a solid effort, and even with a number of reservations I do still hope viewers take the time to give it a look.
Film Rating: 2½ (out of 4)