There’s a whole variety of reasons, why I didn’t feel all that confident while going to see “The frozen ground”. For anyone who has some rudimentary knowledge of modern cinema, knowing Nicolas Cage stars in this film can mean only one of two things: the film is either going to suck massively, or it’s going to be really good. Usually, there’s no middle ground to what we get in terms of quality from anything with Cage’s name on it. Quite fortunately, however, we can kind of deduce, whether a given film is going to be a let-down or not. In some circles over at the deeper end of the Internet it is believed that the quality of Nicolas Cage’s film is inversely proportional to the length of his hair: the shorter it is, the better the film. Understandably, like most things that you can find in the far reaches of cyberspace, it’s only partially true and exceptions to the rule are quite abundant. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that in “Leaving Las Vegas”, “Adaptation”, or “Lord of War” his hair was short and neat, while in duds like “Con Air”, “Next”, or “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”, Nick’s mane could be spotted from a mile away.
Going only by this rule, I’d say that “The frozen ground” should be a safe bet, but – then again – there are other things that could possibly go wrong about this film, but before addressing them, I think I should say a few words about what “The frozen ground” is all about.
It’s a true story about Robert Hansen – a mass murderer who terrorized Alaska for over a decade by kidnapping, raping, torturing and murdering young women. Well, ‘terrorized’ is a bit of a stretch here, because only after Hansen had dispatched over 20 souls, did the police start connecting the dots and realized they had a serial killer on their hands. This is what “The frozen ground” is about – it’s an epilogue to Hansen’s decades-long reign of violence. And, as you’d expect, it almost always starts up with a slip-up.
The film starts off with a police intervention in a hotel room, where a girl is found bound and bruised. Cindy (Vanessa Hudgens) – a prostitute – claims she has been held hostage, brutally raped and threatened by a man who is quickly identified as Robert Hansen (John Cusack) – a stellar citizen, entrepreneur and a family man. She claims to have escaped him just about as he allegedly intended to murder her, but other than her testimony, there’s nothing more than circumstantial evidence that would point to Hansen as her tormentor. Cindy’s case lands on the desk of Jack Halcombe (Nicolas Cage), who is just about on his way out of the police department. It quickly turns out that the case is no mere brush-over as more bodies are (accidentally) uncovered and the dots are being connected. The only thing missing is the link between all those and Robert Hansen. In order to solve this puzzle, Halcombe dives into the Anchorage underworld and sets off to prove that Hansen is indeed nothing more than a predator in disguise.
Serial killers undoubtedly make very interesting subjects for the purposes of cinema. The phenomenon of monsters that hide in plain sight and prey on us to satiate their twisted urges has spawned more films than one can possible imagine: from slashers to shocking thrillers, as a society we adopted the fact the world is full of violent predators and turned them into entertainment. Thus, we allowed the film-makers to let their imaginations run rampant to bring to life the most iconic villains now ingrained into popular culture.
Now, I think that generally we can divide the films that take on the subject of mass murderers into at least two main categories: films founded in reality and films that are completely abstract. The latter bag can be quickly filled with all the horrors and shockers we can possibly name along with many more. The former category, however, is far more interesting. In it we’ll find the true crime thrillers and dramas (where “The frozen ground” undoubtedly belongs) together with films like “The silence of the lambs”, “The girl with the dragon tattoo”, or “Se7en” that may not be directly based on real events, but are either inspired by them, or convey the twisted sense of realism that sets them apart from anything else.
Going back to what could possibly go wrong with “The frozen ground”… I think it’s fair to say that the true crime subgenre can (and often does) suffer from a major flaw – lack of suspense. More often than not, we know from the get-go who the killer is and the entire aspect of the hunt, the investigation and finger-pointing loses its impact. In order to alleviate that, one would expect the film either to take a creative angle at the story, showcase some really interesting characters, or simply concentrate on the reality of the horror that some real people had to go through.
Sadly, “The frozen ground” doesn’t do any of those things to an extent that would elevate it from the crowd of conveyor-belt police dramas. The characters are a bit one-dimensional and none of them really jumps out of the page. Maybe, and it’s a stretch, Cusack’s portrayal of Robert Hansen borders on a really good performance, but it’s nowhere near Kevin Spacey’s John Doe, or Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter. Hansen in “The frozen ground” lacks color a bit and it’s not exactly obvious that he is indeed a twisted psychopath. Vanessa Hudgens and Nicholas Cage don’t make a lot of effort either and, as a result, the build-up to a climactic ending is virtually nonexistent. When you already expect a certain kind of conclusion to a story and you don’t really spend a whole lot of time thinking ‘who the killer is’, the major drive for suspenseful pacing is a character (or a group of characters) that you should care about. Either we hope for the killer to get what he deserves, or we hope for the valiant police officer to connect the dots quicker than it takes for the next victim to be murdered. Either way, “The frozen ground” doesn’t really achieve that and the whole story feels very grey, sad and uneventful. Ironically, the same three adjectives could be used to describe, how Alaska was depicted in his film as well.
Now that I think about it, the reason “The frozen ground” looks terribly dull and boring is that we are used to something completely different. You see, real life is not quite filled with surprising twists, violent explosions and what-not. On the contrary, I dare say that a real-life investigation of a potential serial killer case is far from what Hollywood has made us think it is. There are no pissing contests, no rule-disregarding rookie cops, no shootouts, and no stupid endangerment of human life. Instead, there are procedures, interviews, begging for warrants at the DA’s office, sifting through files… You know – police work. And if I apply that filter to how I perceive “The frozen ground”, it turns out it’s not that bad at all.
I think this film simply reflects how that kind of investigation really looks like. So, if you’re looking for high-octane thrilling manhunt with blood, violence, gun-shots and everything – looks somewhere else. But if you want to have a look at how serial killers possibly look like and what it takes to bring them down, then “The frozen ground” might just be what you need.
Perhaps not all serial killers have sophisticated and brutal rituals… Maybe their slip-ups are not so spectacular, and maybe the detectives work day and night to find something that would help them catch the monster not by running around with guns, but by methodical research of the gathered evidence. Finally, the characters might have been that one-dimensional for a reason, just because that’s what these people could have been like – regular… A regular prostitute with regular issues… A regular detective running a regular investigation into a regular guy who murders people… I know it’s scary, but I think that’s more or less, how real life looks like; it’s nothing special.