What is the allure of true crime stories beyond the truth of “well, that happened”? It’s the sort of rubbernecking that not only kept “Law And Order” on the air for years, but spawned a cottage industry of shows and movies geared towards illuminating the dark side of crime, dramatizing and attempting to bring structure to the cruel arbitrariness of violent murder, rape and assorted trauma. You wouldn’t think there would be so much entertainment value from seeing a star’s glassy eyes as he stands over a murder scene, attempting to register the horror before him. But that sort of mass media has always generated interest, particularly as it hides artistic deficiencies behind the veil of “true story” labeling in an attempt to render the genre critic-proof. Exhibit A: "The Frozen Ground.”
This overwhelmingly dreary true story follows state trooper Jack Halcombe (Nicolas Cage) as he pieces together a string of gruesome murders that have left body parts strewn all over the Alaskan wilderness. The harsh terrain isn’t fetishized or rendered nightmarish by digital trickery or the surgical camera of a David Fincher, but instead by first-timer Scott Walker, who admirably tackles the material with a lack of pretension. This is a dire atmosphere, devoid of life, leisure or culture of any kind. When citizens aren’t walking off into the freezing cold as a means of isolation, they’re enjoying communal efforts that seem limited to bars and strip clubs. Not a whole lot of library cards inside those wallets.
Halcombe begins to uncover seeds of circumstantial evidence that allows him to piece together a suspect. That man is Robert Hansen (John Cusack), an unassuming citizen well-regarded by locals for his small-town friendliness (which is to say he looks people in the eyes, and is clearly a man of unintimidating intellect) and his hunting skills (a tremendous red flag). Walker dispenses with the peekaboo of a potential mystery and reveals that Hansen indeed is capturing women, sexually violating them before ending their lives, buried without identity in the frozen ground.
Halcombe's investigation feels shorn of the embellishments of the genre, instead hamstrung by the lack of physical evidence connecting the crimes to Hansen. This doesn’t stop him from developing a typically-cinematic antagonistic relationship with bosses played by Exasperated Higher-Up Hall Of Famers Kurt Fuller and Kevin Dunn, resulting in the type of open-office arguments that would count as insubordination, standing out among the accurately dull everyday slog of murder investigations.
The trump card is an escaped victim, a local stripper and prostitute named Cindy (Vanessa Hudgens). The film’s devotion to her sordid backstory, which involves drugs and prostitution, feels like a testimony to her breaking the case open, not so much to her character. Hudgens actually brings complexity to a pretty standard role, and she is quite believable as an option-less young woman gone to seed: the film’s indelicate suggestion is that, once given an extra lease on life after surviving Hansen, she doesn’t see it as a license to seek help for her addictive lifestyle. It’s the only attempt the film makes to avoid turning the women of the story into window dressing: poor Radha Mitchell is the only other prominent female character in the narrative, and as Mrs. Holcombe, she’s reduced to sitting at home, making an unseen leap from first-act worrying to third act blind support of Holcombe’s pursuit.
Cage is dialed down, almost invisible: we’ve seen this detachment from him before, sometimes in very expensive movies. But this feels more like a conscious choice: there’s a weight on his character, the suggestion that he’s seen too much that he cannot unsee. In spirit, it’s similar to his work in “8MM,” where he took a backseat to the grotesque theatrics within. Of course, that was a much younger Cage, and this one feels a bit less interesting, less physical, less inviting. Now that he’s aged, Cage seems as if he can no longer play introspection unless a strong filmmaking hand guides him. Cusack, who has been chewing up scenery as of late, is actually quite good, giving Hansen an unassuming shyness that limits his overall authority. When he lashes out, he stutters and trips over his words, like a man who hunts from a distance and isn’t at all prepared for confrontation.
Ultimately, “The Frozen Ground” is a modest film with modest goals, more about noting that something happened more than debating why. Hansen’s psychology is never plumbed, and there’s never a reasoning given to his preying on young sex workers; his (thankfully not too gruesome) torture chamber is run like a business, geared towards giving him pleasure and not exorcising any needless demons. Ultimately, the cumulative effect is deadening, just another chapter in an endless battle between overtasked and underpaid good guys, and cowardly baddies; the only real humanity in the film comes from Hudgens’ Cindy, who seems like a wild card of sorts, her character’s dimensions suggesting a world outside of the lurid details of this case. Refreshingly, she’s the only one in the film who refuses to be defined by the death and tragedy surrounding her. [C]