Tuesday, February 3, 2015

"The Frozen Ground" (2013)

Starring Nicolas Cage, John Cusack and Vanessa Hudgens
Written and directed by Scott Walker
Rated R - Language, violence, drug use, nudity
Running Time: 105 Minutes

In Anchorage, Alaska, in 1983, a young prostitute named Cindy (Vanessa Hudgens) claims that Robert Hansen (John Cusack) abducted, raped and held her captive in his home. But since Hansen is an upstanding member of the community with a wife and kids, the police won't even bother investigating him. One officer, however, thinks more is going on here than meets the eye and hands the case over to the Alaska State Police, catching the attention of Jack Halcombe (Nicolas Cage) who is investigating a series of bodies found strewn throughout the Alaskan wilderness.

Halcombe begins to suspect that Hansen might be a serial killer, and attempts to connect him to more than a dozen murders across more than a decade. Even as the evidence mounts, however, Halcombe discovers that it may not be enough to catch the meticulous and overly-cautious Hansen. And when Hansen discovers that Cindy is helping the police, she becomes his next target -- the one that got away.

There are a slew of direct-to-video Nicolas Cage movies hitting various streaming services the last couple years. Most of these are, as you can imagine, trash. So color me surprised when one of them turns out to actually not be terrible.

"The Frozen Ground" is actually based on the true story of Alaska's most deadly and notorious serial killer. The real Robert Hansen was suspected of raping and killing as many as 30 women over the course of 12 years from 1971 to 1983. The film appears to be reasonably accurate, as least as far as one can tell comparing the film's story to that of Hansen's wikipedia entry.

As a film, "The Frozen Ground" isn't bad. It also isn't great, which may be why, despite its low budget it never saw a theatrical release. While it's bolstered by solid performances from the cast, particularly Cusack and Hudgens, it feels hamstrung by a conventional procedural tone and style. The backdrop of Anchorage looks generally fantastic, with the wintery weather becoming more pronounced as the film goes on.

There are a few other things that scream "this is a movie" a little too much. Hudgens, for example, is the only stripper in this R-rated movie not to take her top off. The entire story seems to take place in only four or five locations. Even disregarding that this is based on a true story, the film is ultimately rather predictable in following police thriller conventions to a T.

It's really the performances that make "The Frozen Ground" stand out at all. Even Nicolas Cage, who has become something of a joke due to his tendency toward over-the-top hysterics in his performances, seems to actually be trying here. Cusack is quite intriguing as soft-spoken Hansen, who somehow manages to be creepily friendly even when he's talking to a rape victim chained up in his basement. Best is when he is actually confronted by the police, knows they have nothing on him and can't prove it, and actually manages to nearly beat them with that. There's a confidence to Cusack's performance and to Hansen's character that is quite watchable.

Hudgens is also good, even if her character seems to check off every damaged runaway girl cliche on the list. She has a few emotional breakdowns, especially in her scenes with Cage, that work really well. The character might be conventional in every way, but Hudgens imbues Cindy with depth that isn't really there on the page.

As direct-to-video mystery/thrillers go, you can do a lot worse than "The Frozen Ground." While the film ultimately feels conventional and familiar, the real-life story is rather fascinating and the performances are better than you'd expect. The film streams on Netflix and Amazon Prime Instant Video.