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Review: ‘The Frozen Ground’ Starring Nicolas Cage, John Cusack & Vanessa Hudgens

Review: 'The Frozen Ground' Starring Nicolas Cage, John Cusack & Vanessa Hudgens

What is the allure of true
crime stories beyond the truth of “well, that happened”? It’s the sort of
rubbernecking that not only kept “Law And Order” on the air for years, but
spawned a cottage industry of shows and movies geared towards illuminating the
dark side of crime, dramatizing and attempting to bring structure to the
cruel arbitrariness of violent murder, rape and assorted trauma. You wouldn’t
think there would be so much entertainment value from seeing a star’s glassy
eyes as he stands over a murder scene, attempting to register the horror before
him. But that sort of mass media has always generated interest, particularly as
it hides artistic deficiencies behind the veil of “true story” labeling in an
attempt to render the genre critic-proof. Exhibit A: “The Frozen Ground.”

This overwhelmingly dreary
true story follows state trooper Jack Halcombe (Nicolas Cage) as he pieces
together a string of gruesome murders that have left body parts strewn all over
the Alaskan wilderness. The harsh terrain isn’t fetishized or rendered nightmarish
by digital trickery or the surgical camera of a David Fincher, but instead by
first-timer Scott Walker, who admirably tackles the material with a lack of
pretension. This is a dire atmosphere, devoid of life, leisure or culture of any
kind. When citizens aren’t walking off into the freezing cold as a means of
isolation, they’re enjoying communal efforts that seem limited to bars and
strip clubs. Not a whole lot of library cards inside those wallets.

Halcombe begins to uncover
seeds of circumstantial evidence that allows him to piece together a suspect.
That man is Robert Hansen (John Cusack), an unassuming citizen well-regarded by
locals for his small-town friendliness (which is to say he looks people in the
eyes, and is clearly a man of unintimidating intellect) and his hunting skills
(a tremendous red flag). Walker dispenses with the peekaboo of a potential
mystery and reveals that Hansen indeed is capturing women, sexually violating
them before ending their lives, buried without identity in the frozen ground.

Halcombe’s investigation feels
shorn of the embellishments of the genre, instead hamstrung by the lack of
physical evidence connecting the crimes to Hansen. This doesn’t stop him from developing
a typically-cinematic antagonistic relationship with bosses played by Exasperated
Higher-Up Hall Of Famers Kurt Fuller and Kevin Dunn, resulting in the type of
open-office arguments that would count as insubordination, standing out among
the accurately dull everyday slog of murder investigations.

The trump card is an escaped
victim, a local stripper and prostitute named Cindy (Vanessa Hudgens). The film’s
devotion to her sordid backstory, which involves drugs and prostitution, feels
like a testimony to her breaking the case open, not so much to her character. Hudgens
actually brings complexity to a pretty standard role, and she is quite
believable as an option-less young woman gone to seed: the film’s indelicate
suggestion is that, once given an extra lease on life after surviving Hansen,
she doesn’t see it as a license to seek help for her addictive lifestyle. It’s
the only attempt the film makes to avoid turning the women of the story into
window dressing: poor Radha Mitchell is the only other prominent female character
in the narrative, and as Mrs. Holcombe, she’s reduced to sitting at home,
making an unseen leap from first-act worrying to third act blind support of
Holcombe’s pursuit.

Cage is dialed down, almost
invisible: we’ve seen this detachment from him before, sometimes in very
expensive movies. But this feels more like a conscious choice: there’s a weight
on his character, the suggestion that he’s seen too much that he cannot unsee.
In spirit, it’s similar to his work in “8MM,” where he took a backseat to the
grotesque theatrics within. Of course, that was a much younger Cage, and this
one feels a bit less interesting, less physical, less inviting. Now that he’s
aged, Cage seems as if he can no longer play introspection unless a strong
filmmaking hand guides him. Cusack, who has been chewing up scenery as of late,
is actually quite good, giving Hansen an unassuming shyness that limits his
overall authority. When he lashes out, he stutters and trips over his words,
like a man who hunts from a distance and isn’t at all prepared for
confrontation.

Ultimately, “The Frozen Ground”
is a modest film with modest goals, more about noting that something happened
more than debating why. Hansen’s psychology is never plumbed, and there’s never
a reasoning given to his preying on young sex workers; his (thankfully not too
gruesome) torture chamber is run like a business, geared towards giving him
pleasure and not exorcising any needless demons. Ultimately, the cumulative
effect is deadening, just another chapter in an endless battle between
overtasked and underpaid good guys, and cowardly baddies; the only real humanity
in the film comes from Hudgens’ Cindy, who seems like a wild card of sorts, her
character’s dimensions suggesting a world outside of the lurid details of this
case. Refreshingly, she’s the only one in the film who refuses to be defined by
the death and tragedy surrounding her. [C]

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Comments

james

great review, well said

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