There is so much to be said for a straightforward, stripped down thriller, one devoid of absurd left field twists, aimless violence and gunplay and excess that smothers what could be considered actual tension. It’s a dying subgenre. Even more maddening is when in the event an effort surfaces, they are often deemed as boring by younger audiences who seem to only be gratified by bombast. I certainly don’t seek to generalize any segment of the movie going public, but the number of times I’ve seen skilful thrillers branded as dull or boring is aggravating. It’s gone far beyond the “to each his own” level.
But I digress. Let me simply say that The Frozen Ground, while not embodying all the premiere qualities of the old school procedural thriller, is far more focussed, unvarnished and streamlined than most. Coupled with a great cast and the foreboding Alaskan wilderness, this first time effort from writer-director Scott Walker pulls emotion and visceral reactions with those frank aspects alone – actors, setting, and setup – rarely relying on contrivances or slight of hand storytelling.
The Frozen Ground, which hits theatres and VOD on August 23rd, fictionalizes the true life hunt for a serial killer operating in Anchorage, Alaska from 1980 to 1983 who (as the film chronicles) was believed to be family man but formerly convicted criminal Robert Hansen, played here by John Cusack. On the hunt is State Trooper Sergeant Halcombe (Nicolas Cage), who becomes increasingly obsessed with the case as it becomes clear Hansen is their man, but cannot produce any concrete evidence. Vital to a conviction is the testimony of a young prostitute (Vanessa Hudgens), the only victim of the man to have escaped his clutches, just moments before she was to be flown to a remote area of Alaska, hunted and then killed no less.
It’s refreshing to see a film present a suspect right out of the gate and use the time normally spent on whodunit side plots to instead focus on the man and his sadistic acts, the investigation and the relationship between Trooper Halcombe and the young runaway. So many times we see investigators spending half a film’s running time chasing down leads and assembling ludicrous boards full of photos and red string before finally settling in on the main suspect. By that juncture we’ve lost precious time that could have been spent fleshing out the killer, making his victims all the more sympathetic and his actions all the more revolting. The Frozen Ground at least understands this, even though the film may not capitalize as fully as it could have.
Walker also has the decency to take full advantage of the ominous Alaskan setting, crafting a vision of the vast state that hasn’t been as effective in a thriller since 2002’s Insomnia from Christopher Nolan, which effectively turned the territory into a nightmare of its own. The landscapes, which consist of simultaneously beautiful and barren vistas, offer a web of bare mud, snow covered forests and yes, frozen ground. He shoots it well and in a way that often serves to amplify the dread we see in the faces of the victims prior to them being let loose as human targets. Knowing this is the place they are to die is rather unsettling.
Of course, a muted narrative approach and noteworthy setting can only go so far to drive a film, but thankfully the performances are right on par with everything else. Nicolas Cage hasn’t delivered a performance this restrained and heartfelt in years and certainly hasn’t seemed as committed since his one-two punch of Kick-Ass and Bad Lieutenant. He shares an immensely natural connection with young Cindy Paulson, serving as a pseudo father figure even when her past experiences would warn against such a bond.
And that brings me to the performance of Hudgens as the troubled 17 year old. Simply, wow. The former Disney gal has shown many instances of promise in films like Bandslam and most recently the excellent Spring Breakers, but this is an immersive, dedicated (and unpleasant to depict no doubt) performance and one which loses the once squeaky clean High School Musical star in layers of grime and regret.
It took me some time to discern off the bat if it was indeed Hudgens on screen and she retains her persona throughout. I was somewhat less impressed by how her character was written in that she is sometimes treated as a device – a chess piece to be moved into danger before being brought back from the front lines. The number of times she slips away from safety only to return to the streets can be infuriating but perhaps that’s part of the point (for better or worse in terms of execution). Regardless, this is a damaged individual with no trust of anyone who simply thinks she is better off alone even if that is the farthest from what she needs.
Cusack, (who bears an uncanny resemblance to his inspiration) is also very strong, portraying a very different type of psychopath than he did in The Paperboy. He is required on many occasions to emit malice through his face and actions, not given any showy monologues to frame his evil or a cat and mouse style foe with which to banter. It’s not until an excellent final showdown with Cage and Cusack in an interrogation room that we finally see his volcanic side and the exchanges and dialogue between these two exist as some of the very best moments of The Frozen Ground. But again, though incredibly satisfying this standoff is never showy and wraps things in as just a nuanced way as most of what preceded.
Certainly no trend setting project, The Frozen Ground is just somehow so rejuvenating in its guileless presentation of events and confident way in which it assembles its actors and backdrop. This snowy tale of a real life killer may not be the most authentic or informative but it has the good sense to be engaging and memorable. More than I can say for most films which seek to masquerade as a thriller.