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The Frozen Ground | Review

Cold Case Files: Walker’s Debut Unexpectedly Grounded

The Frozen Ground Scott Walker Poster Nothing beats the successful defiance of negative assumption and low expectation, and with that in mind, director/screenwriter Scott Walker’s debut, The Frozen Ground, is surprisingly enjoyable, as it headlines a couple of major Hollywood stars that would indicate otherwise. Another of those “based on a true story” endeavors about an Alaskan serial killer from the early 1980s, Walker manages to avoid being another entry in a trash heap of similar scenarios, even if his screenplay depends heavily on several instances of cliché. If anything, here is a testament to the considerable tension that can be mounted from a cast determined to give realistic performances paired with a director that seems to know something about developing realistic (well, for the most part) characters.

From 1971 to 1983, a serial killer in Alaska ruthlessly abducted and killed 21 young women (though it’s speculated that there were more) and dumped their bodies in the wilderness. In 1983, Cindy Paulson (Vanessa Hudgens), a prostitute who barely escaped his clutches, identified Robert Hansen (John Cusack) as her assailant, but the police dismiss her statement, citing Hansen as a notable family man above suspicion while she was nothing but a lowly prostitute.

Although about to transfer to a new position in two weeks’ time, Alaskan State Trooper Jack Holcombe (Nicolas Cage) is assigned the case, and an inside source tips him off on Paulson’s testimony. Believing her story, Holcombe begins a desperate investigation into Hansen’s personal life, and soon begins to find an alarming amount of information. However, without anything other than circumstantial evidence, time is running out for Holcombe to stop Hansen before he kills his next victim.

Resembling similar serial killer reenactment tales in scope and tone, such as the infinitely more eerie 1995 HBO film Citizen X, concerning Russian serial killer Andrei Chikatilo, Walker’s The Frozen Ground is a compelling, fascinating exercise in that it manages to be chilling even while we’re well aware of the eventual safety net of the finale. But what’s most miraculous is a sobering, down-to-earth performance from Cage, who seemed to have forgotten the meaning of subtlety, and thus granted us with an endless series of laughable performances from directors that haven’t any idea how to correctly utilize Cage’s bizarro demeanor (the exception being Werner Herzog). The same can be said for Cusack, himself the headliner of plenty duds, but once again, as he did in 2012’s The Paperboy, proves to be effective as a depraved antagonist.

As pleasurable as it is to see Cage and Cusack in fighting form, it must be known that the biggest surprise of The Frozen Ground is Vanessa Hudgens as a raggedy prostitute. Presumably, her character’s relationship with Cage’s sergeant has been highly exaggerated, but Hudgens manages to eclipse the familiar tropes associated with her storyline and gives a fascinating performance. While James Franco steals the show in Spring Breakers, Hudgens is effectively divorcing herself from those shackling Disney days, and her sympathetic turn is well worth praise (and let’s not forget a thankfully non-distracting role for 50 Cent as a backstabbing pimp). But committed performances aren’t enough to forgive several schlocky moments, especially a handful of scenes featuring Radha Mitchell as Cage’s frustrated wife.

While The Frozen Ground feels expertly lensed by cinematographer Patrick Murguia, what with plenty of aerial shots of the landscape or the freezing streets of the seedy side of Anchorage (which feels as eerily cloaked and busily bustling as the cobbled and foggy terrain where Jack the Ripper worked), there isn’t a distinct early 80s feel to the film, though plenty of sound bites specific to the period (like signing checks) try to herd us there. And while the script is pockmarked with attentiveness to formula, it’s a film that at the very least effectively conveys a grisly tale that’s worth staying to through the end credits (which, in a flourish of exploitation, parades the picture of Hansen’s known victims).

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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