Skip to main content

Have you ever seen anybody do anything like this before?

The Frozen Ground
(2013)

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.


**1/2

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Believe me, Mr Bond, I could shoot you from Stuttgart und still create ze proper effect.

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
(SPOILERS) Some of the reactions to Spectre would have you believe it undoes all the “good” work cementing Daniel Craig’s incarnation of Bond in Skyfall. If you didn’t see that picture as the second coming of the franchise (I didn’t) your response to the latest may not be so harsh, despite its less successful choices (Blofeld among them). And it isn’t as if one step, forward two steps back are anything new in perceptions of the series (or indeed hugely divisive views on what even constitutes a decent Bond movie). After the raves greeting Goldeneye, Pierce Brosnan suffered a decidedly tepid response to his second outing, Tomorrow Never Dies, albeit it was less eviscerated than Craig’s sophomore Quantum of Solace. Tomorrow’s reputation disguises many strong points, although it has to be admitted that a Moore-era style finale and a floundering attempt to package in a halcyon villain aren’t among them.

The Bond series’ flirtations with contemporary relevance have a…

Remember, you're fighting for this woman's honour – which is probably more than she ever did.

Duck Soup (1933)
(SPOILERS) Not for nothing is Duck Soup acclaimed as one of the greatest comedies ever, and while you’d never hold it against Marx Brothers movies for having little in the way of coherent plotting in – indeed, it’s pretty much essential to their approach – the presence of actual thematic content this time helps sharpen the edges of both their slapstick and their satire.

On account of you, I nearly heard the opera.

A Night at the Opera (1935)
(SPOILERS) The Marx Brothers head over to MGM, minus one Zeppo, and despite their variably citing A Night at the Opera as their best film, you can see – well, perhaps not instantly, but by about the half-hour mark – that something was undoubtedly lost along the way. It isn’t that there’s an absence of very funny material – there’s a strong contender for their best scene in the mix – but that there’s a lot else too. Added to which, the best of the very funny material can be found during the first half of the picture.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…

This better not be some 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea shit, man.

Underwater (2020)
(SPOILERS) There’s no shame in a quality B-movie, or in an Alien rip-off done well. But it’s nevertheless going to need that something extra to make it truly memorable in its own right. Underwater, despite being scuppered at the box office, is an entirely respectable entry in both those arenas from director William Eubank, but like the recent Life (which, in fairness, had an ending that very nearly elevated it to the truly memorable), it can’t quite go that extra mile, or summon that much needed sliver of inspiration to set it apart.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

I still think it’s a terrible play, but it makes a wonderful rehearsal.

Room Service (1938)
(SPOILERS) The Marx Brothers step away from MGM for a solitary RKO outing, and a scarcely disguised adaption of a play to boot. Room Service lacks the requisite sense of anarchy and inventiveness of their better (earlier) pictures – even Groucho’s name, Gordon Miller, is disappointingly everyday – but it’s nevertheless an inoffensive time passer.

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

Goodbye, Mr Chimps.

At the Circus (1939)
(SPOILERS) This is where the brothers sink into their stretch of middling MGM movies, now absent the presence of their major supporter Irving Thalberg; it’s probably for the best this wasn’t called A Day at the Circus, as it would instantly have drawn unflattering comparisons with the earlier MGM pair that gave them their biggest hits. Nevertheless, there’s enough decent material to keep At the Circus fairly sprightly (rather than “fairly ponderous”, as Pauline Kael put it).