The biggest problem I face with reviewing films that are based on true events, especially events that are horrific in nature, is whether to give merit to the film for shining some light on these gruesome happenings and the torment that the people involved went through, or treat them as just movies that have a thriller element to them, and should the tagline stating that the film is “based on actual events” were not there, my viewpoint would differ?
Going ahead with this dilemma, I presume the best way to approach The Frozen Ground is from two angles. The actual events angle limits the film in terms of what can and cannot be done. But, the fact remains that the story of a serial killer in Alaska in the early 1980s, played by Joan Cusack, being confronted and caught after a cat and mouse game with a state trooper, subtly played by Nicolas Cage, who is working with one of the victims to have escaped a murder attempt, is undoubtedly shocking. Unfortunately, and this is in no way to undermine what happened to the victims, our World has seen so many similar disgustingly shameful crimes over the last few decades that we have become desensitised to such happenings. Nevertheless, the film takes on the desperate plight of the state trooper Jack Halcombe as he tries hard to convince the one victim, Vanessa Hudgens in a deglamourized and sometimes unrecognizable role, to help him catch the serial killer and simultaneously gather enough evidence to successfully accuse him of his crimes.
Looking at the film from purely a cinematic viewpoint, there is nothing that is going on the screen that would entice the audience to get involved in the story. While all the actors, including Nicolas Cage and John Cusack, give a very low key performance, never letting their star status overshadow the importance of the story, there seems to be a lack of commitment. John Cusack’s Robert Hansen is just not demonic enough or powerful enough to be the wolf in sheep’s clothing that he is supposed to be. Moreover, the film tries to stick with the human approach of the story by not hiding any facts about the murders and the murderer from the get go, thus losing out on any suspense that would have made the film a tad more interesting. The film also misses out on capturing the vast barren and cold terrain of Alaska and making it a part of the story, something that Christopher Nolan did brilliantly in Insomniac, another crime drama set in the region. The one saving grace of the entire film is that it just doesn’t stick to the actual investigation by running a side story of the surviving victim, who happens to be a prostitute, and showcasing her ordeals as an individual during the entire episode. It is this aspect of the story that has more of an effect on the audience, but once again since the film is primarily about the crimes committed; it goes back to the investigations as soon as things start to look interesting. Still, by featuring the young girl’s troubles we see a more humane side to the story that is otherwise laden with a fog of torture, murder, and disgust.
The Frozen Ground is a quiet, somewhat thrilling, real life crime drama that skips the anticipation linked with such kind of films to focus more on its characters. As a story, it is captivating, but the film misses out on a number of factors making it an average thriller.