Frozen Ground is a procedural crime drama that hits most of the notes its genre requires and remains suspenseful enough to always be interesting.
But Writer/Director Scott Walker opts to chase traditional cinematic tropes instead of developing his characters, and thereby produces something familiar and far from great.
The plot is engrossing and the mystery compelling, all the more so because Walker and John Cusack chose to portray Robert Hansen as something of an ordinary man, albeit one who does horrible things to innocent people. In so doing, Walker and Cusack create a character we believe is actually capable of escaping punishment for his crimes as long as he has. Cusack’s performance is understated, gentle and always fascinating if also more than a little creepy. Robert Hansen, both the actor and the character, is Frozen Ground’s greatest strength.
The other characters are not so well written. Jack Halcombe (Nicolas Cage) is little more than a caricature, and his wife, Allie (Radha Mitchell), is borderline contradictory of herself. Robert’s wife, Fran (Katherine La Nasa), might as well not be present.
But Cindy Paulsen (Vanessa Hudgens) is the worst character here. Walker’s script relegates Cindy to doing drugs, running from those trying to help her, stripping or having sex for money, and being a consummate victim, entirely dependent on men to rescue her. She is not an interesting personality; she’s a plot device.
Which is a terrible shame, because Vanessa Hudgens is the film’s second greatest strength. Despite Walker’s mistakes writing Cindy, Hudgens breathes life into the character, showing the young woman’s toughness and vulnerability equally well. Hudgens’ performance in Frozen Ground is in stark contrast to her turn in Spring Breakers, where she, like her character, is nondescript. She is terrific here. I wish Walker had given her a character equal to her performance.
An even bigger flaw is the film’s plot contrivances that exist only to create “suspense.” As a trite example, Cindy is able to completely disappear in the time it takes Jack to stand up from a restaurant booth. More significantly, in a brief chase scene that leads to an airport, Hansen is able to reach his airplane, get clearance to depart and hit the runway in the time it takes Halcombe to drop off a passenger and park his car. Even worse, when the plot demands Cindy escape protection, her guard’s back is turned at just the moment she’s opening the door to her room. Taken individually, these and other contrivances produce “yeah right” moments. Taken collectively, they’re frustrating.
I question some of Walker’s directorial decisions. Ignoring minor period details (the film is set in 1983) does not, in my opinion, create a sense of timelessness. I think it creates a disconnect. I kept wondering why the characters do not look more Eighties. Similarly, I question the decision to present Frozen Ground as a true story when Walker tries to force suspense in so many formulaic ways that most likely did not occur in real life, and when his main character, Halcombe, is completely fictional. That the pre-credit summary tells us what happened to Halcombe after the Hansen investigation is downright silly given that Walker himself admits that Halcombe is an amalgamation of several real life people.
Thus far I have managed to write this review without commenting on Nicholas Cage’s performance. He reminds us that he actually can act, that he is the same man who won an Oscar in 1995, was nominated for another in 2003 and was widely praised for two different performances in 1999. I wouldn’t call him spectacular in this movie, but he is good to very good.
Solid performances and an interesting investigation make this film imminently watchable, but a flawed script and forced plot devices prevent it from being anything special.