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Non-Review Review: The Frozen Ground

Despite strong central performances and a firm directorial hand, The Frozen Ground never quite manages to find its footing. Part se7en, part secondary school civics lesson, The Frozen Ground suffers from a ham-fisted script which feels the need to constantly remind the audience about how terrible the whole situation is. Characters don’t deliver dialogue so much as thematic statements, with the script playing out as an over-extended advertisement for a women-in-trouble charity.

The issues raised by The Frozen Ground about how society treats the abused and the dispossessed are definitely worth talking about. The film makes a lot of poignant criticisms about how the opinions and experiences of a certain class of women are conveniently dismissed and overlooked by those in positions of authority. The problem is that the script is far too earnest about such matters, as if afraid that the audience might be unable to grasp the exploitation of these women unless it is pointed out repeatedly and awkwardly.

It’s less of a film, and more of a blunt mission statement. Less of a story and more of a bleak public service announcement. Which is a shame, because John Cusack is legitimately great here, and Nicolas Cage and Vanessa Hudgens do the best they can with the material afforded to them.

Feeling quite Cage-y on the subject...

Feeling quite Cage-y on the subject…

At the climax of the film, as our detective lays into the prime suspect in a brutal series of murders, the audience can glimpse a note scrawled on a blackboard behind him. “Is the source reliable?” it asks, as if prompting would-be investigators to make sure that their evidence comes from the “proper” sources of such information. It’s one of the more subtle ways the film suggests that the authorities in Alaska failed to act to protect vulnerable women from serial killer Robert Hansen.

Unfortunately, the rest of the criticisms are rather on-the-nose. When a teenage prostitute comes in and is willing to identify Hansen as the man who raped and beat her, the cops are less than open-minded. She is, after all, a hooker. Hansen is a respected member of the community. He’s a respected member of the community with a pretty solid alibi. However, we immediately cut away from the grossly unprofessional interview (which consists of increasingly lurid and immaterial questions) to the detective explaining how he shared a delightfully sexist joke with the suspect.

Hansen family values...

Hansen family values…

“He said you can’t rape a prostitute,” the officer laughs with his colleague. “I mean, how does that work?” The problem isn’t the fact that the characters think this way. After all, there are various horror stories about the conduct of law enforcement investigations where the victim has been treated as an accused. The problem is that The Frozen Ground is incredibly blunt about it. It seethes with justified rage about how these women were treated by the institutions designed to protect them, but none of the failures are portrayed with any nuance or depth.

None of the problems feel systemic or institutional, beyond the fact that apparently everybody who worked on the case before detective Jack Halcombe was apparently a misogynist. There’s no subtlety to the failure, no fine lines sketched out in the movie’s portrait of system societal failure. The movie repeatedly bludgeons the audience over the head with how absurdly unjust this whole situation is, with Halcombe vowing to arrest the man responsible for the rape and murder of several young girls, particularly infuriated about how the DA “probably bought him lunch for the inconvenience of questioning him.”

Curtains for them...

Curtains for them…

When Jack takes survivor Cindy Paulson home, his wife is infuriated to have a prostitute in the house. “She’s not our daughter!” she protests, prompting Jack to start another rant about the systemic injustice of it all. “But she is someone’s daughter. And nobody cares. And he knows that!” Characters don’t speak in a way that’s recognisably organic. There’s a vice detective played by John Grady who offers Jack a walking tour of the area, delivered to the audience as if reading from a website about the sort of abuses that go in.

When the DA bluntly reminds everybody what’s at stake, in a way that spells it out to the audience at home, one of the detective stiltedly replies, “Then, unlike before, we’d better not mess it up.” It’s horribly awkward, and most of the actors struggle against the lead weight of the script. Nicolas Cage can be a better actor than most give him credit for, and you can see him struggling to imbue a big emotional monologue about his sister with resonance and depth, hampered by the fact that the dialogue feels strange delivered in a roller derby.

The killer outside...

The killer outside…

Similarly, Vanessa Hudgens tries to push even further away from her Disney persona by playing the role of Cindy Paulson. She’s actually quite impressive, even if the script doesn’t treat Cindy as anything more than a means of generating angst or pity. Hudgens works well with the material given to her, but there’s only so much she can do. She actually has a nice chemistry with Cage, despite the fact that the script gives the pair some terrible lines.

John Cusack does a great job as Robert Hansen, undoubtedly helped by the fact that the screenplay isn’t too concerned with him as a character. There’s no great motive rant, and the script steers clear of too much serial killer voyeurism. He skulks around the periphery of the film, never really taking focus. Cusack handles the role well. In particular, there are some nice moments where the stuttering character is very clearly struggling to bottle it all up. Cusack subtly sucks his cheeks in and out, to create the impression that the tension is literally bubbling beneath the meek and mild-mannered exterior.

Body of evidence...

Body of evidence…

Unfortunately, the supporting cast is nowhere near as solid. The film doesn’t exploit its eighties setting too heavily, barring the aforementioned roller derby scene. However, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson pops up as possibly the most eighties pimp who ever appeared on screen. Jackson is not the strongest actor by any measure, but his hair and wardrobe completely overwhelm the actor, turning his pimp into something that feels like a grim parody. It doesn’t fit with the darker mood of the rest of Walker’s film.

Similarly, Brad William Henke pops up as a muscle man who somehow gets involved in the convoluted plot, which involves Cindy escaping repeatedly from police custody. Henke plays a gangster who should probably exude some sense of menace. Instead, he feels like he should be hosting some reality television show, explaining to viewers how exactly they deal with pimps and serial killers. There’s a theatricality to his performance which feels at odds with the other actors here.

Holding the line...

Holding the line…

To be fair, The Frozen Ground looks impressive. Walker shoots Alaska very well. It looks like a landscape haunted. With the snow constantly falling and the rugged wilderness, Walker does an excellent job conveying a sense of the vast open wild where Hansen could conceal his victims’ bodies for so very long. The Frozen Ground is strongest in these wordless passages, without the tin ear dialogue and ham-fisted urgency that drags down so much of the film.

The primary problem remains the script, which all too often feels like a bunch of serial killer clichés (hey! it’s Jack Halcombe’s last two weeks on the job!) wrapped up in a social conscience and overcooked. This is a true story, a haunting and disturbing true story of the systemic failure of law enforcement to protect the most vulnerable members of society. However, the script manages to take that true story and ensure that none of it feels quite real.

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