Directed by Scott Walker
Distributed by Lionsgate
Police procedural films are a dime a dozen these days. If the formula isn’t being worn out enough on TV, it certainly gets just as much of a workout on celluloid. Films with a compelling hook tend to rise above the crop, even more so when the film is based on a true story. Now, look, I know as well as you do that most Hollywood police films “based on a true story” are little more than clichés packaged in a seemingly authentic box; we get the same structure nearly every time and exceptions to that rule are rare. The Frozen Ground (2013), from first-time director Scott Walker, isn’t exactly one of those exceptions. Walker’s film does bring to light a serial killer case that seems to have been largely forgotten.
Alaskan Robert Hansen was found guilty of kidnapping, raping, and murdering at least 17 women during the ‘70s and ‘80s, with his actual body count believed to be at least 24, maybe more. The only reason he was ever caught is because a prostitute he intended to kill, Cindy Paulson, managed to escape and get to the police. Hansen took a plea deal, limiting the amount of publicity the case received. Not many people are familiar with it as a result. Walker’s script hews as closely as possible to authenticity, though it does so in the confines of a typical procedure-by-numbers police work drama. And, honestly, I didn’t care. When you’ve got Nicolas Cage putting in some of his best work in years, and John Cusack playing far against type as a normal family man who moonlights as a deranged human hunter, I’m on board.
The film crashes open with the police storming a hotel where Cindy Paulson (Vanessa Hudgens) just burst in handcuffed and screaming about a maniac. The cops take her in and casually dismiss her story. You can’t rape a prostitute, right? When the bodies of missing women begin appearing in the Alaskan wilderness, Sgt. Jack Halcombe receives a file in the mail alerting him to Cindy’s story. He makes contact with her and hears her tale of a guy who offered to pay her $200 for oral sex, only to pull a gun on her, chain her up in his basement, and rape and torture her for a week before trying to abscond with her on a plane. When the guy turned away for a moment, she bolted out of there. And the thing is, the cops know who this guy is – he’s Robert “Bob” Hansen, a local respected baker who has a wife and two kids. Despite his record indicating he’s had “women problems” in the past, nobody wants to take only the word of a hooker. The D.A. wants hard evidence before he’ll issue a warrant.
Halcombe works tirelessly to get Cindy on board with aiding the investigation, but she’s hesitant to trust police. More than once she runs off, back to her pimp, Clate (50 Cent, sporting a hilarious pimp wig). As Halcombe works the case, we also get to witness how Hansen works. After abducting a woman who was lured in on the premise of posing for photos, we then cut to Bob casually stoking a fire… while this girl is chained up by the neck in his basement. She pees herself and apologizes. You can tell she’s scared to death. Bob takes her from his home to a plane, telling her they’re going to his cabin. In truth, Bob is about to release her into the wild, miles from anyone or anything, before leveling his rifle and shooting her like a buck. One more to the head for good measure, and then it’s off to a shallow grave. The only loose end he’s ever left is Cindy, and when he spots her during a trip to his usual choosing grounds, the film quickly turns into a race between Hansen and Halcombe to get Cindy off the streets and into custody. Even when Hansen is finally brought in on formal charges, Halcombe still has to beat out a hired hitman and find concrete evidence at Hansen’s home or else he risks losing Cindy and seeing Bob walk free, likely to disappear forever.
There isn’t much to set this film aside from standard serial killer cinema thematically, so the onus of making boilerplate material work is placed on the actors. Everyone is fully aware of the Nicolas Cage Scale of Acting; his tendency to either play things close to the vest or as a spastic lunatic with questionable enunciation choices. But this film gets Nic Cage the serious actor; the Nic Cage who takes his trade seriously and is clearly trying to deliver a strong emotional performance devoid of his famous flourishes. Cage can be a great actor when he wants to, and he can also phone it in with the best of them. I won’t say he’s operating within his wheelhouse here since, well, frankly, I don’t think Cage can ever be confined to any sort of house; however, this role isn’t exactly stretching his abilities. He’s nothing more than a committed cop, two weeks from retirement (aren’t they all?), who wants to stop a bad man from doing more bad things. That’s it. At least he was given the free rein to mold Halcombe as his own, since the real life Halcombe is a former officer named Glenn Flothe who preferred not to have his name used here.
John Cusack, however, is completely playing against type. It’s hard not to draw comparisons to Robin Williams’ turn in Insomnia (2002), where he also played a serial killer operating out of Alaska. The real-life Hansen was described by those who knew him as a normal, everyday guy who kept to himself and didn’t bother anyone. He was a family man people liked. Casting an actor audiences consider to be that type of person, as Cusack certainly is seen, just adds an extra unsettling layer to a deranged character. Our perception is that Cusack is a “good person” since those are the roles he tends to play, making it all the more chilling when he’s revealed to be a lunatic with serious woman issues. What I found most effective about his performance was the cold, calculating nature of his demeanor. Hansen never allows himself to lose control until the film’s climax, when his façade begins quickly crumbling. Nothing registers with this guy. When his wife won’t stop trying to make a point at dinner, the minor act of allowing a fork to drop heavily to the plate and a vacant stare are all he needs to make her instantly quiet. There isn’t a hint of humanity behind his eyes.
The only film I’d seen Vanessa Hudgens in prior to this was Harmony Korine’s divisive Spring Breakers (2013). Her character was mostly annoying, which was probably intentional. She can act, though I never once bought the fact she’s supposed to be a hooker in 1983. For that matter, the production design at large does a poor job of conveying the year, outside of some cars that fit the period. Hudgens plays your standard street-hardened hooker who gets all gooey inside when someone hits the right nerve. She just wants to see Hansen behind bars so she can move on with her life. Hudgens delivers some scenes with true, raw emotion that showed she isn’t just a pretty face.
50 Cent, however… I’m still laughing at that hair. And, really, his acting in general. He’s popped up in at least half a dozen or more films I’ve seen, and not once has he given a performance that wouldn’t have been better served with an actual actor. I guess he’s the right fit for Pimp Clate Johnson here. Luckily, we’ve got trustworthy character actors like Kevin Dunn and Kurt Fuller and Dean Norris (Hank!) to deliver strong support.
The film ends with a dedication to the victims of Robert Hansen. Scott Walker specifically said he didn’t want to glorify Hansen through this film, presenting him only when the story required it and focusing more on Cindy and Jack’s relationship. We don’t delve deeply into who Hansen is or why he’s doing this; that isn’t the film’s concern. Most serial killer films have a tendency to glorify the killer’s actions, so in that respect this film is refreshing. The Frozen Ground doesn’t break much new ground, though with its gripping story and stellar performances from its leads – and the gorgeous, isolated Alaskan landscape – that doesn’t matter so much. A lot of films can be seen as derivative; what matters is who’s telling the story and how good of a job they do it.
The film’s 2.40:1 1080p image is about as proficient as the Arri Alexa digital camera can provide. Post-production color grading was clearly implemented here, with many shots attaining hues of steely blue or grey; warmer lighting is used in the strip club and basement scenes. The film flip-flops between these two aesthetics without compromising other aspects of the image. Sharpness remains high, with faces exhibiting minute details. Contrast isn’t the strongest, allowing some of the more dimly lit scenes to swallow up the image without allowing much detail to shine through. Black levels, likewise, could have deep more saturated and deep, though they’re mostly good enough to avoid giving a washed out appearance. The picture does a fantastic job of selling the darkness and isolation that come with being in the Alaskan frontier. There are numerous aerial shots that convey a sense of despair. Audio comes in the form of an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround sound track that has a real strong presence. Composer Lorne Balfe’s work is ominous and foreboding, enveloping viewers in a tense series of cues full of percussion and woodwinds. Fidelity is excellent. Sound effects pan seamlessly between speakers; any freeway driving features an array of vehicles deftly moving across the front assembly of speakers. Bass levels kick in when the film transitions t the strip club, a frequent location throughout. Separation of effects and dialogue is handled perfectly, with both given plenty of room to breathe alongside Balfe’s score. The rear speakers levels seem punched up a bit, which only adds to the immersion this soundtrack provides. Subtitles are included in English SDH and Spanish.
The audio commentary features writer/director Scott Walker and producers Mark Ordesky and Jane Fleming. This is a lively chat that moves along at an even pace, full of technical information regarding the production and other on-set stories. Walker talks about the difficulty of shooting in such a cold, remote climate where they were constantly losing a little bit more daylight with each passing day. Several deleted scenes are included, the majority of which provide just a little more insight into Hansen’s personal life. Most were wisely cut. “Examining The Frozen Ground” features Cage and Cusack discussing their respective roles, which at one point almost were almost reversed. But even Cage knows people would expect him to be the crazy one, and he didn’t want to play to the audience’s expectations. Scott Walker mentions that Jack Halcombe is an amalgamation of police officers, most notably Glenn Flothe, the Alaskan office who brought the case to a head. In “Writing The Frozen Ground” Walker talks about his early ideas for a different story forming the basis for this tale when he learned he was writing something similar to a real-life case. He did exhaustive research, getting the approval of the real Cindy Paulson as well as Glenn Flothe’s participation in order to make sure he got as much right as possible. If you’ll notice, even the photos of missing/deceased women shown in the movie are based on actual shots. They even got Hansen’s creepy trophy room full of stuffed animal heads replicated perfectly. A handful of extended interviews are included with writer/director Scott Walker, Nicolas Cage, John Cusack, Vanessa Hudgens, officer Glenn Flothe, Kevin Dunn, and producers Mark Ordesky and Jane Fleming. The film’s trailer is also included. An insert containing a digital download code for use with Ultraviolet is tucked away inside the case.
3 1/2 out of 5
4 out of 5