While it might be easy to delve into the recent less-than-great outings by Frozen Ground’s two leads, John Cusack (The Factory, The Raven) and Nicolas Cage (Stolen, Trespass, Season of the Witch) as a jumping off point to talking about this film, I tend to think that’d be a waste of time. If you come into a film like this wielding expectations and recent letdowns like a weapon, you’re likely not going to enjoy it very much. If you can leave that stuff at the door, however, you can freshly take in a better-than-average police procedural starring the aforementioned men as the cat and mouse players in a true life serial killer story. Now ordinarily, the ‘based on true events’ stuff usually (and should) elicit an audible eye-roll but in this case, they seem to actually take it seriously. So much so that they run pictures of actual victims of Robert Hansen (Cusack) in the credits which I found to be sobering and sincere. Some might not see it that way, but I was (frankly) touched by it.
The story is set in and around Anchorage, Alaska in the early 80s and follows the story of Robert Hansen, a seemingly normal local business owner and community member who secretly captured, tortured and killed over seventeen women in the course of three years. The film follows the process of connecting open missing persons cases in the area, with all the normal trappings you’d expect from a three act police procedural. You have the decent cop, the old boys club complete with rampant sexism (in this case directed at a potential key female witness with a questionable background), dealing with the limitations of the justice system, evidence handling and the ever-ticking clock. These are all things we expect to see in this type of film and Frozen Ground is no exception. What makes this film better-than-average is the scope in which the area is shown, the lack of scene-chewing by any of the major players and the earnestness by which the material is handled.
While that might sound like the bar is being set pretty low for ‘success’, I tend to think the sea of would-be police thrillers and serial killer profile-type films over recent years has done the job for me. If this had come out some time between Se7en and Zodiac, I don’t know that I would’ve enjoyed it as much. But I’ve been beaten down a bit by lousy cop-thrillers (including one of Cusack’s recent ones, The Factory) over the last bit of time, so Scott Walker’s Frozen Ground is a welcome bit of fresh air for that area of the genre’. But again, it’s better to focus on the film itself than my expectations coming in, stars or genre or otherwise.
Outside of a wonderfully understated performance by Nic Cage as Detective Halcombe and a calmly creepy turn by Cusack as Hansen, the film is littered with solid work from a bunch of recognizable faces. Dean Norris (Breaking Bad), Radha Mitchell (Silent Hill, The Crazies), Brad William Henke (Justified), Kevin Dunn (All The Kings Men) and Kurt Fuller (Ghostbusters 2) all do quite well. Vanessa Hudgens actually does exceptionally well as Cindy Paulson, the prostitute that got away from Hansen. I was, to be quite honest, not expecting her to do all that well and she certainly proved me wrong. Solid job there. On the other end of the spectrum, Curtis (50 Cent) Jackson plays Cindy’s pimp and is not good at all. Thankfully he plays a small role but the time he does have on-screen is quite frustrating. Maybe it is his crazy wig or casually applied accent or some combination of whatever else but he wasn’t good. I’d rather have seen an actual actor in that role.
Scott Walker directs the film with an impressive calm. The camera takes the vast, cold landscape of the region and doesn’t minimize it at all and instead exploits it to add a great deal of weight. A lesser director would haphazardly switch between huge setup shots of the surrounding area and tiny interior stuff and hope you don’t get whiplash. But Walker seems to understand that the ugly human drama of a serial killer, and in particular this serial killer, needs to exist within the world, not sit on top of it. I look forward to seeing more from him in the future because he clearly has a solid gut and a good eye for what not to do with familiar genre’ territory.