Based on a true story — and actually feeling real, which is often not the case — The Frozen Ground is a film detailing a trio of interconnecting stories which give us a character on each side of the story. The film is about Robert Hansen (John Cusack), a serial killer who kidnapped, raped, killed, and buried around 20 young women over the course of several years. We follow him for part of this film. We primarily watch a detective, Jack Halcombe (Nicolas Cage), attempt to bring Hansen down. We also spend some time with a victim, Cindy Paulson (Vanessa Hudgens), who managed to escape.
The most surprising thing about this movie — apart from it not being terrible — is that it doesn’t try to be a whodunit or toy at all with who the villain is. It’s clear after the first couple of scenes that Hansen is guilty. The film is more concerned with Jack’s attempt to find enough evidence to put him away for good. This is a police procedural, a genre rarely seen in cinemas. Hansen is smart and has figured out a way to get away with his crime for years and years, so it’s going to take determination and intelligence to figure out how to prove he did it.
It winds up coming down to a race against the clock, as several factors wind up working against detective Jack. The Frozen Ground isn’t the most thrilling film — particularly because it’s too formulaic in many aspects to generate much suspense — but it has low ambitions and does match them. This could have been a terrible slog, but it’s not painful to watch at all. In fact, with a quick pace and some good performances, it might just be worth checking out.
The one thing I will say is that there is no reason for this to be a movie, except that a show like CSI wouldn’t go back in time to the 1980s to tackle a real-world case. This case could easily fit in a 60-minute television show, and apart from profanity and a scene set in a strip club, this material would be perfectly at home on a television screen. What I’m getting at is that it feels too small to be a feature film. It’s not a bad watch but it didn’t feel different from the countless detective shows on TV.
What makes it different and worth seeing, I suppose, are the background moments. Watching, for example, Jack attempt to gain Cindy’s trust, especially after all of the other police officers disregarded her claim after learning that she’s a prostitute — “How can a prostitute be raped, anyway?” — is good cinema. Her vulnerability coupled with his urgency and compassion makes for many good scenes.
You will struggle to overlook the clichés. Jack is close to moving and this is his last case. He has a wife (Radha Mitchell) who thinks he works too hard, and he should drop the case, but then she turns around at a crucial moment. Higher-ups dislike Jack re-opening cases that had been closed for a long time. One woman at the strip club takes in Cindy because “stripper with a heart of gold” is too juicy to pass up, I suppose. The entire story is predictable. You’ll notice these while the film is playing and they reduce its credibility and attempt at suspense.
Surprisingly, though, it all feels as if this is how it could have happened. The small town in which the film is set feels authentic, the scenery is used to great effect, and the actors all turn in strong performances. About the only thing that doesn’t factor in is the time period. The film is set in the early 1980s but I forgot about that a few minutes in. It could easily be taking place in 2013 and not much would have changed. About the only thing keeping it in the ’80s is the fact that it’s based on a true story.
Nicolas Cage. Just saying his name promotes a wonderful response from almost anyone — even those who aren’t big film fans. We forget how grounded and real an actor he can be. He demonstrates that in The Frozen Ground. He is our anchor. John Cusack is creepy as the villain. As the teenage prostitute, Vanessa Hudgens turns in her best performance to-date. Even those with bit parts, like Jodi Lyn O’Keefe, Radha Mitchell and … actually, those are about the only names you’ll recognize. 50 Cent is in the movie but is too ridiculous to take seriously.
The Frozen Ground is a decent police procedural and does a decent, if formulaic, job of bringing this real-life story to cinema screens. It’s not terribly thrilling, but it has a strong sense of itself and where it’s set, and it contains strong performances from most of its cast. Its side stories are more engaging than its main one. It’s a middle-of-the-road movie but it doesn’t feel like it’s a waste of time to see.