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The Frozen Ground

2013 | 105 min | R | 2.39:1

The Frozen Ground


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Theatrical release date

 23 August, 2013
 19 July, 2013

Country of origin

 United States



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The Frozen Ground Preview  

 / 10
Preview by Brian Orndorf, August 29, 2013

“The Frozen Ground” is exploitation disguised as a funeral. The production claims the material is based on a true story concerning evil acts committed by serial killer Robert Hansen throughout the 1970s, but how much authenticity there is to the picture remains questionable, with writer/director Scott Walker inching away from creating a tight procedural to slurp up the salacious events of the story. Capable work from stars Nicolas Cage and John Cusack are enough to keep tension somewhat in play, while a supporting turn from Vanessa Hudgens reveals previously unexplored depth. Despite positive attention from the cast, “The Frozen Ground” is familiar, semi-eventful, and hampered by a weird fixation on the ugly details.

In 1982, prostitute Cindy Paulson (Vanessa Hudgens) is discovered shackled and screaming in a hotel room, having just escaped an encounter with serial killer Robert Hansen (John Cusack), a mild-mannered bakery owner with a particular fondness for torturing, raping, and killing young girls in Alaska. Approaching a marriage-saving transfer out of Anchorage, Sergeant Jack Halcombe (Nicolas Cage) is pulled into the case when local authorities are unable to find a suspect. Poring through clues and piecing together the particulars of similar crimes, Halcombe is able to narrow down his investigation to Hansen, yet requires evidence to bring the monster to justice. Hoping to persuade Cindy to cooperate as a witness, Halcombe is forced to share his haunted past with the exploited teen, only to face her skills of evasion, trying to track the runaway down before a former pimp (50 Cent) returns to claim his prize.

The challenge facing Walker, an untested filmmaker, is how to turn this routine of evil and investigation into a riveting picture worth the time invested. With television procedurals covering the same ground on a weekly basis, “The Frozen Ground” doesn’t retain originality, unfolding in a familiar fashion that finds our police hero on the verge of escaping job submersion before he’s pulled back into the thick of the hunt, a damaged witness who’s flighty and moody, and a cold-blooded killer wearing the guise of a settled suburbanite, complete with a friendly profession and a family unaware of his heinous crimes. These are recognizable ingredients for a manhunt movie, coupled with the material’s background as a true story, providing a pathway for the production to run through a to-do list of dead ends, near misses, and mounting frustrations as Halcombe realizes he doesn’t have enough to nail Hansen for his crimes. There has to be something cinematic here that elevates the feature, giving the audience something unanticipated or meaningful to cling to while cliché has its way with the story. Unfortunately, Walker doesn’t have an original take on the genre, merely interested in the mechanics of the hunt, not its psychological depth.

“The Frozen Ground” concludes with images of the real victims, arranged in manner that’s meant to pay tribute to those whose lives were senselessly taken by Hansen. It’s well-intentioned but uncomfortable to watch when the picture is fixated on the sensational details of Cindy’s self-destruction, with ample screentime provided to study her manipulation into heroin use and observe her extended stripper routine. It doesn’t take much to sell the idea of Cindy as damaged goods, requiring little help to reinforce her sadness before the story returns to the case. Nevertheless, Walker enjoys his leering time, confusing the tone of the feature. Are we mourning the loss of these women or delighting in their downfall, relishing their abuse? Cheap thrills destroy whatever pure intentions launched “The Frozen Ground,” chaining the effort to the most banal of B-movie pursuits.

Cage is tasteful and direct, and Cusack is adequately unnerved, allowing serial killer eyewear to carry much of the performance. The real revelation is Hudgens, and while she’s no Streep, the actress captures Cindy’s pain and messy defensive measures, isolating the panic of an abused girl left to fend for herself. Of course, taking any acting seriously in a movie that casts 50 Cent is a stretch, but when all else fails “The Frozen Ground,” and it certainly does, the ensemble retains a welcome presence, succeeding at finding a life to the personalities when Walker would rather fixate on all the illness and suffering.

Starring: Nicolas Cage, Vanessa Hudgens, John Cusack, Jodi Lyn O'Keefe, Katherine LaNasa, Gia Mantegna
Director: Scott Walker

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