The Frozen Ground, 2013.
Written and Directed by Scott Walker.
Starring Nicolas Cage, John Cusack, Vanessa Hudgens, Katherine LaNasa, Radha Mitchell, and 50 Cent.
An Alaska State Trooper partners with a young woman who escaped the clutches of serial killer Robert Hansen to bring the murderer to justice.
In a recent Guardian Guide, the synopsis of The Frozen Ground was briefly summarised as “Nicolas Cage thinks John Cusack is a serial killer”. Amusing, yes, but the presence of these two big-name actors is telling to how the ‘true story’ of one cop’s dogged pursuit of a serial killer is fated to play out, subservient to the camera’s longing for its stars. John Cusack, playing real-life murderer Robert Hansen – a man responsible for the deaths of between 17 and 21 women in the early 1980s around Anchorage, Alaska – is given as much screen-time as Cage’s committed cop: real-life hero Glenn Flothe, renamed the far more heroic title of Sgt Jack Halcombe for this incarnation. This double-billing between cop and robber sets up a potentially thrilling chase that could try to approach the twin psychologies of Michael Mann’s 1995 crime thriller Heat; alas, Scott Walker is no Mann, and he’s far from capable of exploring the possibilities of digital photography in the same way.
The early reveal of Cusack as the notorious killer is understandable given the reality of the story, though the time spent with Hansen uncovers little engagement with the mental process behind his actions. It’s a good excuse for Cusack to bust his psycho-acting chops, no more, no less; to sink his teeth into a wildly erratic free-for-all of a role. Cage’s do-good cop – “just two weeks from retirement” – is hardly fleshed out himself. He has a wife, yes, who is quite clearly a prop and, more often than not, an objector to his whims. Then there’s the slight matter of his dead sister, a casual aside of a backstory that’s drudged up once or twice for the sole purpose of allowing Vanessa Hudgens’ aggrieved prostitute Cindy Paulson to fill the void left behind. Conversely, Jack emerges as the father figure Cindy never had. Whether any of this Million Dollar Baby tomfoolery was drawn from the actual events is a very good question.
Look close enough and you see a slight parallel between Cage and Cusack’s characters, as two completists compelled to plug an empty space in their routine. Cusack’s desperation at snatching back Cindy is perplexing considering the high number of strippers and sex workers in the area, and it’s this tic – amongst many others – that would have perhaps benefited from more thoughtful consideration. Instead, ample screen time is devoted to the peripheral 50 Cent as Cindy’s pimp, sporting a hysterical wig and slurring his lines so as to render them utterly inaudible – with the notable exception of “Let’s get in with the bitches!”
The end credits pay dubious tribute to all the real-life victims, displaying each of their photographs scored with cheesy US hard rock. It’s not totally unlike a WWE video montage of a wrestler’s retirement; more than that, it’s incredibly offensive, a bold-headed assumption that the preceding film – indulging in Cusack’s torture of women as it does – is a morally corrective piece of art. It’s anything but.
Maybe Walker’s biggest crime is in having Nicolas Cage, one of the most bankable and consistently entertaining action stars around, come across as such an unrelenting dullard. But we should also recognise in this film the aesthetic decline of the thriller in the digital age. Once again, we hear an arbitrary ambient score slapped across the film, readymade to fit any given scene; we have shaky two-shots, each frame half-obscured by the back of one actor’s head. The opening shot, of a helicopter slowly swooping over the chilly Alaskan landscape, holds a credible darkness under its wings, and thusly holds some promise. Then the film zones in on the frozen ground and all its characters, and the sights turn ugly. As the sergeant by the chalk lines would say, “There’s nothing to see here, folks.”
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ / Movie: ★
Ed Doyle – Follow me on Twitter.