The Frozen Ground
Does John Cusack have troubles with the taxman, on the scale of Nicolas Cage and Val Kilmer? An actor who used to appear in a couple of movies a year showed up in seven during 2013, and has another eight pencilled for 2014. What gives, John? Nicolas Cage meanwhile, whose wigmaker also appears to have fallen on hard times, seems to be curtailing the quantity if not the dubious quality. So the two of them together, realising the vision of first-time director Scott Walker, didn’t bode well. The results bear this out, which is especially unfortunate as Walker’s subject matter had the potential for a gripping piece of work.
The Frozen Ground is based on the 13-year killing spree of Robert Hansen, outwardly a respectable family man and member of the community, but whose rap sheet testified to a history of criminal activity and violence against women. Hansen abducted, raped and murdered at least 17 women. A hunter, he would fly his victims out to the Alaskan wilderness where he shot and buried them. It’s a grisly tale, the sort of material one could imagine David Fincher casting a meticulous eye over (he does adore his serial killers, does David). Scott Walker is most definitely David Fincher. He may have the eye for a compelling story, but neither his script nor direction are up to the challenge of translating it to screen.
While Walker hits the essential beats of the tale, he also makes a right botch of Hollywood-ising it in all the wrong places. His attempts to amp up traditional thriller elements are never less than risible. This is particularly ironic, as he announces with great sincerity that this is Cindy Paulson’s story and ends the movie with a roll call of all Hansen’s (known) victims. This would be a nice touch if it the movie weren’t so ham-fisted and straight-to-video in its dramatic content.
Vanessa Hudgens does a tolerable job as panda-eyed Paulson, but she’s saddled with a character required to repeatedly put herself in harm’s way so as to maximise the tension. Are we really supposed to believe that Hansen hired a heavy (Justified’s Brad William Henke) to dispose of Paulson? Has Walker managed to convince himself he’s telling her story, complete with Fiddy Cent as Paulson’s pimp? The attempts to enliven the interrogation of Hansen are no better, with the crucial evidence of Hansen’s map (showing the sites he flew his victims to) introduced as a sudden revelatory moment. “I’ve got it! That’s what these little “X”s mean!” Hansen’s eventual spilling of the beans is toe-curlingly inept as devised and staged.
There’s little to commend him for in terms of the other characters either. There’s zero insight into Hansen, the hows and whys. He may as well be the standard issue boogeyman, despite assurances that we would be presented with the opposite. Cusack is okay, but just being subdued and glowering is no substitute for motivation. Cage’s Sergeant Jack Halcombe is standard issue Cage. He’s fine (I’ll big up Cage in any role; I’m fully aware of the brickbats he takes but I find him enormously entertaining, even when the enjoyment may be inadvertent on his part), but Halcombe is as wafer-thin as Nic’s syrup. He even has a wife (Radha Mitchell) ragging on him who then comes round to his way of thinking when she sees how important his case is. Poor Mitchell; her relocation from Oz has all gone a bit wrong. Also popping up uneventfully are Dean Norris (playing a cop!) and Kevin Dunn (playing a lieutenant; virtually the same role as in True Detective, but not nearly so auspiciously).
Even less assured are Walker’s stylistic flourishes. He appropriates handheld camera as if it’s going out of fashion. There are few directors with the assuredness to use handheld well. Paul Greengrass is one, so much so that his name is virtually synonymous with shakycam. Walker attempts no visual gymnastics, but his technique is horribly distracting. His camera moves and darts without rhyme or reason, an approach bereft of any understanding of the dramatic integrity of a scene and how it fits into the film as a whole. Close-up of a hand, a face, move the camera randomly to suggest import or momentum, cut; stir and repeat. If it looks like he doesn’t know what he’s doing as a storyteller, I’d suggest that’s because he doesn’t. There’s a nice shot with an ethereal moose wandering the city, but it’s an ill-fitting affectation.
As straight-to-video fare goes, this is probably about what you’d expect. But it’s the sadder testament that lingers. Two stars reduced to slumming it in rote roles (is it really 17 years since Con Air?) and a true story executed in an at best mechanical and at worst borderline inept fashion. The morbid fascination of the crimes ensures The Frozen Ground holds interest, but Walker’s floundering take guarantees it will be another decade before anyone goes near Hansen’s story again and attempts to do it the justice.