An inept filmmaker is one thing, an uninspired filmmaker is another, and neither do much harm in the grand scheme of things. What is more worrying is when you have an artist who’s clearly technically competent, who does their research and claims to be trying to do justice to a true story, yet still produces something that feels unsavoury and callous, bordering on gleeful in its treatment of a real-life serial murder case. In short, murder-mystery THE FROZEN GROUND just feels wrong.
The Frozen Ground re-tells a remarkable investigation and conviction of serial killer Robert Hansen (John Cusack) who was apprehended and confessed to multiple tortures, rapes and murders of young women, after one of his victims Cindy Paulson (Vanessa Hudgens) escapes and tells her story to an Alaska State Trooper (Nicholas Cage) on a manhunt.
For all the efforts made to give Hansen’s victims a voice, writer-director Scott Walker spends entirely too much time closely examining the mangled corpses of young murder victims. Cut-aways can me more effective, what with the human imagination being so adept at terrifying itself. Think of the autopsy scenes in JAWS or THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and how disturbing they were, disturbing because you just have the onlookers’ horrified expressions and someone describing the state of the corpse in grisly detail. You never really need to see it.
I also felt deeply uncomfortable the extent he objectified women in the strip club scenes, this being a story heavily involving rape and violence. I understand that this is the world Cindy is forced to be a part of out of necessity, but there are ways to do these scenes without revelling in writhing flesh, without the camera drooling over the shape of the dancers’ bodies like the pervy wolf in those early Disney shorts, particularly when these scenes come straight after a distressing and drawn-out torture sequence.
Walker knows which way to point a camera, but his direction is mostly uninspired, and he can’t resist over-using aerial shots of desolate Alaska – we know they’re isolated, you don’t need to keep reminding us in every scene transition! The script also leaves much to be desired, and would be hard to bring much life to, even with a cast of better actors than Cage and Hudgens. I know Cage has his moments, but he just looks bored here, and I just didn’t buy Hudgens’ performance. She’s trying to shift the Disney girl image with edgier roles like those in SUCKER PUNCH and SPRING BREAKERS, and wants to be seen as more mature, but she’s not quite there yet in convincingly performing drama.
Lorne Balfe’s score annoyingly doesn’t so much support and deepen the mood of the plot as bludgeon us with how we’re meant to feel in any given scene. If a film can’t make you emotionally connect on its own terms, then over-the-top music can’t force any emotional reaction from you beyond anger.
The film’s only real saving grace is Cusack. He makes a fine low-key monster, unfathomable and scary, though we could have probably done without the clichéd serial killer physical tics, whether the real Hansen actually showed them or not. We know he’s the killer pretty much from the start, and his monstrous action speak loudly enough without silly embellishments like the sickening way he licks his fingers after touching warm bread.
The story being told does provide a convenient little twist on the murder-mystery movie formula in that efforts to catch the killer takes up just over half the plot. The final act is Halcolme (Cage) interrogating Hansen and trying to force a confession out of him. It’s the only part of the film with any real tension, and it brings out the best in Cusack’s performance even if Cage remains underwhelming throughout.
Whatever his intentions were (and I hope they were noble), Scott Walker has made an unpalatable, disrespectful and artistically clumsy true crime film. It’s the mixed messages the finished film gives out that are the most insulting, that it seems to be saying we should mourn for the poor girls Hansen raped and killed (there’s a photo montage over the credits), but we can also get a kick out of Vanessa Hudgens’ scantily-clad body writhing around in a dingy club. It’s just bad taste, and I really can’t understand Walker morally thinking it would be OK to put this on screen. Robert Hansen’s victims disserve better than this, and would be far better served by a straight documentary. SSP