Reviewed by Debi Moore
Starring Shawn Ashmore, Emma Bell, Kevin Zegers
Written and directed by Adam Green
Distributed by Anchor Bay Films
It seems like outdoor survival horror films aren't attempted as often as other subgenres, and I suspect it's because for every successful endeavor like 2003's excellent Open Water, there are multiple near misses such as The Ruins and outright failures like last year's The Canyon in which the characters either are so unlikable or do such stupid things that the audience loses interest or, even worse, roots from them to die. In the case of Frozen, however, writer/director Adam Green avoids both of these pitfalls, but before we delve deeper into the storyline, let's bite the bullet and address the elephant in the room: the aforesaid Open Water.
Yes, on its face, the six-word description of Frozen most of us have been hearing since the project was first announced -- "Open Water on a ski lift" -- can be considered fairly legitimate, but it takes that jumping off point and ramps up the stakes and the tension because unlike its predecessor (where the outcome was a foregone conclusion known to everyone watching), Frozen keeps the audience guessing as to which, if any, of its three leads will live and how much its survivor(s) will be forced to endure along the way. Not only that, but it takes Open Water's couple dynamic and adds the complicated components of friendship and jealousy to the mix, resulting in a richer emotional journey that everybody can relate to. We care about these kids because they could be us, our friends, or our children.
Now that that's out of the way, let's focus on Frozen's plot crunch. Parker (Bell) and Dan (Zegers) are a young college couple who have been dating for about a year. Lynch (Ashmore) has been Dan's best buddy since childhood, and he's none too happy with the fact that Parker has replaced him as Dan's BFF. Sure, they hang out and do stuff together, as evidenced by the ski day that's the foundation of the film, but despite their surface congeniality, it's obvious there's more than a little friction among them. Dan has his hands full keeping both sides happy, but you can tell right away he's one of the good guys and understand why Parker and Lynch are drawn to him. Not that Lynch is an especially "bad" guy or anything like that -- he's just your typical third wheel kind of dude who likes to flirt with the ladies and give Dan a hard time about what he's missing by being in a relationship.
With that as the setup, our threesome spend most of the day on the bunny slope of a New England ski resort due to Parker's inexperience, and as evening approaches, Lynch's annoyance and aggravation become more pronounced. They decide to go on "one last run" so the day's not a total waste and commence trying to talk the lift operator into letting them on even though he's in the process of shutting down for the night. Not only is daylight fading fast, but there's a storm approaching. He's not keen on helping them out but finally reluctantly relents. As they head off up the slope, another fellow takes over for the original operator so he can go take a leak. New guy is told only that "three people" are coming down, and when, after a few minutes, he sees a trio reach the bottom (whom we, the dismayed audience, of course know isn't Parker, Dan, and Lynch), he finishes closing up shop. I think you can see where this is going. Their chair stops midway up the mountain, all the lights go out, and our protagonists are left hanging with three choices: wait until the lift reopens, pull themselves along the wire holding up their chair to the nearest tower and climb down, or jump the rather significant distance to the ground and hope for the best.
Option 1 is unacceptable as these events are taking place on a Sunday, and the area is closed until the following Friday. Not to mention the inclement weather. Option 2 isn't looking too good either as the wire is extremely jagged and cuts through gloves (and hands) with ease. As for Option 3, well, let's just say even though it seems the most viable, a group of inhabitants of the mountain are feeling rather territorial about whom they will and will not allow into their midst.
And that, dear readers, is all I'm saying about the sequence of events in Frozen as to give away even a hint of what else transpires is to do a disservice to everyone involved in the production. The less you know, the better to keep you on the edge of your seat and enable you to experience the fears and emotions of the characters. With regard to the latter, I admit I'm an easy crier, but I shed even more tears than usual while viewing Frozen. This wasn't just a case of "oh, so-and-so died; how sad." It was, instead, a similar situation to what I experienced while watching Hideo Nakata's Dark Water -- a profound sense of the loss of a loved one following an act of extreme self-sacrifice. Emma Bell is especially adept during these types of heavy, intense scenes; none more so than when she expresses her fears about what might happen to her beloved puppy if she doesn't make it home. It's a tragic, heartbreaking situation that only someone with a heart of stone won't be moved by.
Which brings us to the most remarkable thing about Frozen (aside from its realism, which we'll get to in a moment): its lead actors. A lot is asked of Ashmore, Zegers, and Bell; and they all deliver powerhouse performances. Thanks to Adam Green's razor-sharp dialogue, the two young men are believable as best buds from the start and sound like any average college-age guys you'd encounter nowadays. Nor is there a doubt about Parker's and Dan's feelings for each other. Green has talked about doing a romantic comedy for some time, and hopefully a studio will give him that chance (provided he immediately returns to horror for some much needed cleansing from the experience). He's shown himself to be not only smart and pointedly non-sappy and sentimental in his script for Frozen, but he's also damn funny. If anyone can breathe some fresh air into the tired rom-com genre, it's him. And I wouldn't at all mind seeing Bell as his lead. Despite her relative inexperience, she handles herself here like a real pro and hits every note required by her predicament.
And her predicament isn't just what she goes through in the script. That realism cited previously? Frozen was filmed outside in the elements with Utah standing in for Massachusetts -- no soundstages, no green screen, and all practical effects. In other words, Bell, Zegers, and Ashmore were on an actual ski lift, including at nighttime and in freezing cold blizzards, just like Parker, Dan, and Lynch were. Green and his crew were there, too, right alongside them. Suffice to say that no matter how warm the room is in which you watch Frozen, I'm willing to wager that by the midway point you'll be chilled to the bone and shivering along with the stars. I wish I could share some of the stories Green has relayed to us about the shoot; they would make your hair stand on end. Let's just hope the eventual home video release contains a commentary and/or a couple of featurettes covering the conditions under which everyone worked. There's harsh ... and then there's Frozen.
One thing film critics and reviewers appreciate the most is watching the evolution of an artist, and Frozen demonstrates exactly that in terms of the career arc of Adam Green. From the broadly comedic and appropriately gory slasher Hatchet to the taut, complex psychological thriller Spiral to the equally dramatic and horrific minimalism of Frozen, he shows off an ever-increasing skill set that encompasses an ability to handle both intricate and challenging camerawork as well as richly detailed and relatable characterizations. He's also put together a solid cadre of "regulars" to work with, several of whom make an appearance in Frozen's credits, including actors Rileah Vanderbilt and Kane Hodder, cinematographer Will Barratt, and co-producer/second unit director Jason Miller, to name just a few. The rest you'll have to discover for yourselves; however, I do want to be sure to point out the incredible sound design on Frozen. The work done by the team the filmmakers assembled truly is another character in and of itself and melds perfectly with the soundtrack and the original music score composed by Andy Garfield.
Man vs. Nature is an eternal theme that's tricky to get right on film. In Frozen's case it's damn near 100% right. Green has crafted a potent combination of absolute terror and compelling human drama that will stick with you long after you've left the theatre or turned off the DVD. One thing's for sure: The next time your friends invite you on a ski weekend, if you've seen Frozen, odds are you'll try to convince them to head to the beach instead.
4 1/2 out of 5
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