On top of governing the state of Wisconsin, Scott Walker must be a really big fan of David Fincher movies because his new film, The Frozen Ground, seems intent on aping the arch, brooding gunk of Zodiac’s obsessive investigations. Walker (okay, not that Walker) also mines his story from a real life string of Alaskan murders, Robert Hansen, a prize hunter and owner of the most obvious pair of serial murderer glasses in the western hemisphere. To spoil you, Hansen was eventually caught in June of 1983 by Sergeant Nicolas Cage. I mean Sergeant “Jack Halcombe,” who partners with one of Hansen’s escaped would-be victims (Vanessa Hudgens).
Actually “Jack Halcombe” is a stand-in character for Glenn Flothe, Hansen’s real captor, further solidifying Cage’s attraction to roles with Jack and/or John. Jack-John.
Half of The Frozen Ground (which Walker writes) plays like a television procedural, where Halcombe, Hudgens’s prostitute, and a slew of paper-pushing Alaska state troopers (including Breaking Bad’s Dean Norris!) sift through evidence files and testimonies, before proceeding to chase Hansen around town in ridiculous cat-and-mouse games. That brings us to Frozen Ground’s other half, which tails Hansen with a troubling amount of interest and detail. Hansen has a home life, a job, acquaintances in the community, and one hell of a trophy collection. Hansen’s secret life isn’t all that interesting, yet Walker is invested in showing how the man went about his murders and hiding his sordid crimes from his wife and children, stowing away battered prostitutes in his backwoods cabin before dispatching them with belabored plane rides to Bumblefuck County in the Alaskan wilderness. I don’t even like typing his step-by-step process. The film is as interested in Hansen as a person as it is with Cage’s Sergeant, but save for one disturbing sequence where Hansen hunts a victim like an animal, The Frozen Ground’s portrait is cold and objective, at odds with its very accusatory and uplifting ending.
That ending makes sure to include title card updates on Hansen’s victims, what became of the serial killer, and the fate of Cage’s sergeant. Again, it’s very much in the vain of Zodiac — gotta get that Courier New font! — but the throwback quality isn’t tirelessly recreated like in Fincher’s masterpiece. Save for the absence of cell phones, I’d have never known what decade this was in. Place is less of a discrepancy, as Walker establishes the barren snow-capped trees of the Alaskan wilderness with helicopter shots buttressed by booming tones in the score. Hans Zimmer isn’t even dead and his ghost already haunts this decade’s cinema like nobody’s business.
Despite the obvious misogyny of Hansen’s crimes — again, Walker’s rigid recreation of the torture and murder of Hansen’s victims is disturbingly cold– but that casual dismissal of women seeps into other areas of Walker’s script. Halcombe’s wife exists only as the most basic of indicator of a family life, and her decision to stay with her career-obsessed husband leads one to wonder why she protested at all about his overnight fastidiousness in the investigation. And Hansen’s wife may as well have been window dressing, her presence reduced to a loving answering machine message and a dinner table objection thats’ quickly squashed by Hansen — of course. There’s more than a hint of irony in Walker’s own treatment of women in his film, but their presence at all here is symptomatic of a larger issue. The Frozen Ground goes in search of the humanity in this story, but in all the wrong places. Rather than pay more screentime to its two male leads, more was owed to Vanessa Hudgens’ struggle. Now there’s something I never thought I’d type.
Hudgens’ isn’t spectacular here. Like her earlier turn in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, Hudgens continues to break from her rosy Disney typecast. The only difference is that she’s obviously trying in The Frozen Ground. At the same time, her position as Hansen’s escaped would-be victim seems poised for those personal elements Walker seems to strive for, and as a last bit of armchair screenwriting, one cannot file “ludicrous 50 Cent pimp side story” under “personal elements.” Sorry.
I have little desire to investigate how Robert Hansen ended up confessing to 17+ counts of abduction, rape and murder, but the manner The Frozen Ground chooses — whereby Cusack stutters out an angry series of rants — is wholly ridiculous and terribly un-cinematic. The man himself here is okay, but the role of Jack Halcombe as a cool, collected lawman never calls for spastic fits of frustration. Perhaps its the film’s closer resemblance to a televised movie than straight genre fare, but Cage sits comfortably in the “Jack-John Safe Zone” here, in line with Seeking Justice or a version of Red Rock West without the fucking of Mexico. It’s yet another paint-by-numbers Cage performance. Too bad someone forgot the color.
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