Serial killers have provided ripe material for film for several years, both directly and indirectly. Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal horror classic Psycho famously had a lead character modelled after Ed Gein, while David Fincher’s Zodiac notably took a different tack by focusing on an ultimately unsuccessful investigation. The Frozen Ground, thus, despite retelling the true story of 80s serial killer Robert Hansen, already enters a crowded genre. Fortunately, a few choices, including the uniqueness of the setting in which Hansen operated, and was eventually caught, help elevate this to a feature worth a watch, though other issues hold it back from being a top-tier film.
One of the biggest issues of the film is the lack of understanding of character motivations. A lot of this comes from an absence of dimensionality afforded to the characters themselves, an issue that’s particularly egregious in this case, as the cast is filled with character actors such as Dean Norris, Kevin Dunn, Brad William Henke, Kurt Fuller, and Radha Mitchell. A supporting cast of that calibre could have more than capably carried weighty material, but unfortunately, the movie does not give them an opportunity to do so. Perhaps the most glaring error on this front is in the case of John Cusack’s Robert Hansen; despite the amount of time the movie dedicates to Hansen, at the end of the movie, there’s still no idea of who he is and what drove him to do the things he did. He remains a blank slate of a character, simply there due to the necessity of having an antagonist for the police to chase. Because of the real-life nature of the subject matter, perhaps a case could be made for the idea that nobody truly understood what drove Hansen to do what he did, and why he choose his particular modus operandi; however, other characters who could have been further fleshed out are not explored. Radha Mitchell’s Allie Halcombe, most obviously, has a complete turnaround on a few stances entirely offscreen.
A surprising exception to the above issue, however, is the character of Cindy Paulson. Surprisingly well-fleshed out, the movie finds its best moments when focusing on her and allowing the audience to see the despair and fear that drives her actions. A lot of credit for this goes to actress Vanessa Hudgens’ portrayal of Cindy, as the former tween star manages to inject her performance with enough heartfelt sincerity to make her a sympathetic character who may not always make good decisions, but whose thought process is somewhat understandable. While Hudgens’ work in Harmony Korine’s subversive Spring Breakers was eye-opening to many, her performance here further proves her ability to carry grim material if given a chance.
Another definite highlight of the film is the pacing. The Frozen Ground takes its time throughout, especially in the early stages and with the character of Hansen, as well as the police investigation, and the film greatly benefits from it. However, the story never gets boring, nor does it ever convey a sense of spinning its wheels, and what seem like needless segues mostly do turn out to be important as the movie progresses.
Overall, however, this is a well-done piece of cinema. Fans of Nicolas Cage’s more hammy performances may be disappointed with his work here, as the actor is serviceable in the role, despite the limited scope he’s given, with a strong indicator that he can deliver strong performances when the script gives him an opportunity. The movie also does a good job of establishing the setting, the camera weaving in and out of the red light district of Anchorage and giving the viewer a good idea of the place without diving into moral judgment of the area, and mostly managing to show the sex trade workers without objectifying or fetishizing them, save for a few minor scenes. The period setting seems more a necessity than a stylistic choice, and does not impact the film in any real way, as the audience gets the feeling the story would play out in much the same way even in the presence of modern technology. Lack of character development aside, The Frozen Ground is well-done, mostly due to Hudgens’ performance, and manages to maintain an air of suspense throughout, and tell an important story without a self-congratulatory tone.
– Deepayan Sengupta