Based on real life events, The Frozen Ground marks writer-director Scott Walker’s feature film début in those roles. Starting in 1983, The film follows fresh investigations into a series of missing persons cases and suspected murders that appear to show that a serial killer is operating in and around Anchorage, Alaska. Nicolas Cage plays the lead investigating officer, Sergeant Jack Halcombe (based on the real police detective Glenn Flothe), while John Cusack plays the killer Robert Hansen. Vanessa Hudgens (of High School Musical fame) plays Cindy Paulson – the victim that begins to lift the lid on what’s really happening in Anchorage…
Serious Cage is serious
I’d hope from my description of the film that you’d realise that this isn’t a “crazy” Cage film. No, this is Nicolas Cage in full-on, super serious acting mode and he makes a very good detective. Jack Halcombe is a police officer you can emphasise with – he’s not there for you to hate. However the role is kind of predictable in terms of the ups and downs he faces: senior police officers who don’t want to go looking into old cases involving sex workers; a wife who doesn’t still – after many years of them being together – understand just what his job demands; despite being a nice guy, difficulty in convincing witnesses of this and so on.
Despite this predictability, Cage still gives a convincing performance as Halcombe. You never feel like he’s just going through the motions: he is living the role. Equally, Walker could have written the character as permanently angry, but chose to characterise Halcombe as someone who did his best to remain professional and keep his cool despite the crap he was having to deal with. Again, this all just makes the detective a more likeable individual and easier to understand his motivations.
And yeah, I’m use to John Cusack playing oddballs and the like, but he’s far more unsettling as a serial killer. One aspect regarding his character that’s lacking is that the script doesn’t give much opportunity for the audience to understand his motivations. Sure he’s the bad guy, but I don’t think it would have caused the audience to misplace some empathy if Hansen’s background had been investigated a bit more.
But is it all too predictable?
Clearly the risk of creating a film that’s based on real life events is that it can become predictable and a lot of The Frozen Ground is, but it’s still a suspenseful watch if you hadn’t known much about the actual case before watching it. Part of the issue, I suppose, with adapting a film from pretty harrowing, real life events is that if you change things too much, then you risk seriously disrespecting the victims and their families. As such, I think the film is a reasonably respectful look at what happened in Anchorage all those years ago, but sometimes it doesn’t detail the information from the real events in a way that’s best cinematically.
This is obvious when we consider that Hansen’s motivations for his crimes are completely brought across in dialogue between the investigating officers as they look into him and when a profile of the killer is provided by the FBI. I’m not saying there needs to be flashbacks and so on, but we don’t spend enough time with Hansen outside of the horrific things he does to see why or how he’s capable of such monstrosities or able to get away with them, which was discovered in real life, but not effectively covered in the film.
And while Cindy Paulson is an integral individual in what happened, Walker doesn’t give Hudgens enough depth to explain why the character is the way she is. There is a degree of showing what her life is like, but it doesn’t fully explain her actions post-Hansen and so it’s far too easy for the audience to become incredibly frustrated with her, which doesn’t seem appropriate.
The Frozen Ground is a reasonably suspenseful and well presented crime thriller. If you like the genre, you’re unlikely to find it boring. However, it is difficult to understand the motivations of any characters aside from Cage’s Halcombe who is fleshed out enough. For a first feature film, Scott Walker has presented something that is enjoyable and competent, it just needed a little bit more variety.
The Frozen Ground is out now. Our reviewer watched the film via a digital streaming service.