Based on a true story in much the same way as a pineapple is based on a turnip, The Frozen Ground is an effective, by-the-numbers, little true-crime/serial killer flick that, like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, doesn’t let a little thing like the facts get in the way of its TV movie-ish treatment of Alaska’s Butcher Baker, prolific serial murderer Robert Hansen, who’s currently serving a 461 year sentence for his crimes.
It’s 1983 and when the Anchorage cops are called to a disturbance at a sleazy motel, they find hysterical, semi-clad and handcuffed jailbait hooker Cindy Paulson (Vanessa Hudgens). Kidnapped, raped and beaten by fine, upstanding, pillar of the community, baker and local businessman Robert Hansen (John Cusack), Cindy’s seen which way the wind was blowing when Hansen drove her to a small commercial airfield and tried to load her into his plane and has legged it when his back is turned. However, as a teenage runaway junkie prostitute, Cindy’s seen as an unreliable witness and the majority of the local plods, agreeing with Hansen’s sentiment that “you can’t rape a prostitute,” allow Hansen to walk.
But the case piques the interest of driven, world-weary, I’m-just-two-weeks-from-retirement-Godamnit!, cliché cop Sgt. Jack Holcombe (Nicolas Cage). He’s been finding young women’s bodies in the remote Alaskan wilderness for a couple of years, is convinced he’s got a serial killer on his hands and is determined to get his man.
Tracking Cindy down and winning her trust, Holcombe convinces her to testify against Hansen, convinced that the mild-mannered businessman and avid hunter, has been kidnapping and abusing the girls of Anchorage’s red light district for a decade before tiring of them, flying them out to the middle of nowhere and hunting and killing the terrified women like game. But as Holcombe builds his case and struggles to protect his recalcitrant witness, Hansen has his sights set on the prey who got away…
Efficient, mildly thrilling and completely unsurprising in any way, The Frozen Ground adds nothing new to the serial killer genre, its mechanical nuts-and-bolts handling perhaps more suited to TV but for writer/director Scott Walker’s clinical, wintry direction and its performances, particularly from former child starlet Vanessa Hudgens who tears into her role with a vanity-free enthusiasm that sees her strut her stuff as a stripper and spend a lot of time weeping and snotty, her spiky vulnerability elevating the role beyond mere hooker-with-heart-of-gold clichés into something all together more complex; a victimised woman finding the steel at her core, refusing to simply be dismissed as a victim and demanding the justice that is her due.
Cusack’s also good as Hansen, the latest in a recent successful run of loathsome scumbags for the actor and his twitchy nerviness and glib, superficial charm make for a compelling, menacing monster. As ever Cage is Cage, only here, thankfully, less so (in a role based on several investigators on the case, most notably Alaskan State Trooper Glenn Flothe who apparently was unhappy with fictionalised elements of the film). For a change, Cage turns in a measured, restrained performance, perhaps worried that chewing scenery with so much snow might give him an ice cream headache. There’s also strong, unshowy support from producer 50 Cent as Cindy’s pimp daddy who appears in an invented sub-plot designed to inject a little more danger and conflict into the film.
In fact, for a true story, The Frozen Ground plays pretty fast and loose with the truth, falling back on jailhouse-ordered hits and familiar serial killer clichés that wouldn’t be out of place in a Miss Marple including a scene where the increasingly twitchy Hansen violently losed his cool and incriminates himself. In reality, Hansen remained cool and calm to the end, only confessing when the evidence against him was overwhelming.
Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of Walker’s film however is his commitment to humanising Hansen’s victims, putting them front and centre. It’s a shame then that, after dedicating the film to them, Walker’s admirable sentiment is slightly undone by the inappropriate soft-rock track playing over the photo montage of the dead women.
Low-key, brooding and solid The Frozen Ground is better than it really has a right to be thanks to a raw performance from Hudgens and the waning light of its two stars.
The Frozen Ground is released in the UK today and opens August 23rd in the US.
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