When dealing with real-life subject matter of a harrowing nature, it’s important to get facts straight and be sensitive to those involved. A film such as The Frozen Ground from debut director Scott Walker is such an example, based on historic events surrounding Alaskan serial killer Robert Hansen who kidnapped and murdered around twenty young women in the 1980s.
Walker assertively cuts his filmmaking teeth here, managing to balance fact and thrills value well enough to deliver an engaging watch – albeit too safe and clichéd, script-wise.
Nicolas Cage sets his oddball roles aside here to play another ‘uniform’, straight-as-a-die character, state trooper Jack Halcombe. The officer is about to retired from the force when he is reluctantly tasked with one last high-profile case of tracking down the killer of young girls, after one victim, prostitute Cindy (Vanessa Hudgens), manages to escape the maniac’s twisted clutches. The authorities’ suspicion falls on community-spirited family man Robert ‘Bob’ Hansen (John Cusack) who has a previous criminal history. As more girls go missing, time is running out for Halcombe who must get his man before the grizzly evidence is lost forever in the Alaskan undergrowth.
We are nicely enveloped in the drama from square one as Walker’s opener flies us at speed over the vast Alaskan wilderness to show the enormity of the situation – like finding a needle in a haystack. Then we’re in the killer’s retreat as a distraught Cindy is found and released by police, hence beginning the grim discovery. The gritty, shaky camerawork that such crime dramas now favour to induce a sense of urgency and intensity also dates the film for the 80s era, staying gloomily lit until the end and setting a sombre atmosphere to cultivate the ugly chain of events. The cinematography works well for both panoramic and claustrophobic shots to develop a tangible sense of foreboding.
The problems with Walker’s film arise from the script, where it lacks any real passion for the plight of those involved, demonstrating his inexperience, however well researched it may be. Cage does the best he can, portraying Halcombe as both reliable and grounded but simultaneously, rather wooden and two-dimensional. It also begs the question, are we limited in our empathy for this real-life character and his gruelling task because the script reels out the TV cop drama clichés? In contrast, Halcombe’s predictability shows Hudgens in a brave new light, totally dispensing with any Disney sheen here, showing a gutsy and rather exciting new premise as an adult actor in a controversial role.
Indeed Cusack’s Hansen bristles with malice and deviance that is electric, proving again that the actor suits such creepy roles far better than the unconventional action hero or the soppy, loved-up fool. The final exchange between Halcombe and Hansen is worth the wait as Cage manages to pull something memorable out of his character’s bag before the credits roll. It’s also some credit to Walker for his casting and direction, getting two versatile actors who last met face-to-face in thriller Con Air to bat back and forth and produce such intensity and drama at that point. Nevertheless, it does appear to highlight that Walker has concentrated all his writing efforts into that one dialogue, which is a shame and wastes potential with the earlier scenes.
That said as a debut thriller of high-profile interest (in the story of Hansen), Walker has held his own and produced something very watchable and well executed – end photo montage of the real victims aside that feels like a forced ‘add on’ to underline the ‘reality and gravity’ of the story. The Frozen Ground also shows Walker’s emerging skill that with the right script, he could be a director to watch in the near future in the genre.