The true-life crime drama is an often difficult beast to master. The best films, like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, work because they are able to balance the banality and shock of the real, with the bravery and artistic desire to express a filmmaker’s distinctive vision. Scott Walker’s The Frozen Ground unfortunately finds itself at the other end of the spectrum, where an attempt to embrace reality and a sense of gravitas ultimately leaves the film unimaginative, lazy and formulaic to an almost insulting degree.

Based on the real life case of Robert Hansen (John Cusask), a serial killer who haunted the streets of Alaska in the 1980s, kidnapping and raping young girls before taking them into the middle of the Alaska wilderness and hunting them down for sport. However, one girl, young prostitute Cindy Paulsen (Vanessa Hudgens) manages to escape his clutches, and the man in charge of the case, Jack Halcombe (Nicolas Cage) must find her and protect her in order to finally catch his man before he continues his murderous game.

Let’s just get this part out of the way…this film is relentlessly dull. I mean, there are films that use minimalism and stillness to create a sense of the mundane or the reality of life as an artistic or philosophical expression; and then there are films like The Frozen Ground that lack so much personality, struggle to create a world of interest or intrigue, and that ultimately, leaves the audience frozen out. The narrative jumps between Hansen, Paulsen and Halcombe in such a cumbersome and unrefined way, and is edited together in such a rough manner, that the sheer lack of any compelling action or intrigue is magnified, as miserable as the tone of the film itself.

The early scenes on the streets are promising, capturing the vibe of despair tinged sleazy edged late 70s urban cinema, like Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and Schrader’s Hardcore. However, rather than pushing this further, the film quickly finds itself locked into grey, lifeless spaces, populated by stereotypes and vacuous bodies. At times, it feels as if the film shifts almost towards the style of the recent trend in Nordic noir, with their cold visual colour schemes, flat reality and gritty tones, but this is a tactic that only enhances the sense of the morose and the feeling of being derivative. Quite simply, visually, it offers nothing new and gets lost in the crowd, like a snowflake in a snowstorm.

The performances within the film also leave a lot to be desired and only reinforce the bland nature of the film. Nicolas Cage, an actor who has such a cult reputation for the excessiveness of his performances, delivers the most un-Cage like of performances. Halcombe is a vacuum of a personality, a stereotypical cop married to his job, driven to catch criminals at all costs, even his own happiness; the classic knight in shining armour. There is nothing individual or standout about him, and Cage plays him solidly this way, like acting by numbers. It’s such a disappointment because, although the real Halcombe might be exactly as plain and boring as that in real life, if Cage had been given the room to let loose a little and express himself, as so successfully seen in the extreme example of Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans, it could have been the shot to the arm this film so desperately needs. It wouldn’t have fixed the film itself, but it would have made it a damn sight more watchable than it is. Where Cage is solid but bland, Hudgens certainly deserves recognition for the effort she puts into the more active role, but once again, the character never feels real…this is a standard carbon copy troubled girl on the streets you’ve seen in a million other crime films, relentlessly colliding into the next problem, with an obnoxiousness and attitude that at times, makes her unlikable. It’s a shame because she should be the heart of the film, but unfortunately she is written poorly and is exploited as much by the film as the men in her life. Curtis Jackson AKA 50 cent, one of the film’s producers, even pops up as Hudgens’ pimp, a character who is such a cliché that it’s not even funny, but whose long silky wig is one of the most memorable features of the film, for it’s sheer beautiful ridiculousness.

However, while Cage and Hudgens leave much to be desired in their performances, Cusack is the only star to come out of the film positively. His depiction of a twisted man, living a public life of normality and neighborly kindness, and a private life of sadistic control and perverse desire, isn’t flashy but his delicate balance between the composed façade and the boiling truth within is expressed wonderfully through subtle physical ticks and delivery of lines.  He shines particularly during a claustrophobic interview with Cage’s detective, one of the few scenes to bring any intensity into this cold film.

The perfect moment to illustrate the film’s confused and clumsily handled state is also it’s worst moment. Before the credits roll, a title card appears stating the film is dedicated to the victims of Robert Hansen, before showing pictures of each victim to honor and remember them. This would have been a sensitive touch…if not for the bizarre decision to play a blaring piece of bland modern rock music over the top of these images, that feels absolutely obnoxious, and in my eyes, extremely disrespectful and distasteful.

Ultimately, The Frozen Ground is a sub-Se7en crime drama that is excessively sluggish, failing to express personality, emotion or complexity. Instead it feels tired and tedious, unable to be distinctive or illustrate the flash of creativity to elevate the grim, banal reality of the case. It is shame because there is a compelling film to be found somewhere within this emotionally charged real-life story, but The Frozen Ground is most definitely not that film.

EXTRAS: Examining The Frozen Ground featurette, cast and crew interviews

VERDICT: [rating=2]

About The Author

Matthew Hammond is a full time cinephile, specializing in cult, art house and 1980’s cinema. While film is his overwhelming passion, Matthew has been known to enjoy comic books, Sherlock Holmes stories and a good film related T-shirt. Feel free to email me with any questions or comments: mattpaul61@o2.co.uk