Director Scott Walker’s The Frozen Ground is the kind of thriller your conservative grandmother loves. It’s all around safe and plain, simple and to the point, and all very, very by-the-numbers. It’s like an episode of Law & Order expanded to two hours with an occasional polish or two. That idea may entice some older viewers, but after two hours of a “been there done that” on television, it’s not exactly attention grabbing.
And this is a movie that conceptually should work. Alaskan State Trooper Jack Halcombe, played by a determined Nicolas Cage, attempting to bring killer Robert Hansen, played by a finicky John Cusack, should be a joy to watch. Not because of its violent content, but because we’re seeing two notable actors facing off. It’s a cat and mouse game approached with smarts, not guns. There’s no scene of Halcombe confronting Hansen at his job or physically accosting him, but instead he’s simply trying to catch him with good old fashioned police work.
Padding is what weakens The Frozen Ground, not Cage or Cusack. In the film Halcombe is close to switching up jobs for something a little safer and less time consuming for his family, and once again, we’ve seen it all before. We hear him say “My last two weeks…” more than once, and it’s a tiresome line. We don’t see a lot of Halcombe’s family life, but Cage brings a sufficient amount of personality to the workplace. There’s already enough humanity in his scenes between him and Cindy Paulson (Vanessa Hudgens), the young prostitute he’s shielding from Hansen and, eventually, a pimp played by 50 Cent.
Even with the generally aces Radha Mitchell, playing Allie Halcombe, everything involving Halcombe’s personal life is uninspired. There’s one scene in particular where his wife has a change of heart that is so forced and unbelievable, and it begs the question: why even have Allie present if you’re not going to give her a real presence? There’s potential for good drama between the couple, but it doesn’t fit in this movie and, when it’s there, it all rings false.
One performance that, on paper, could ring as nothing but pure posturing is Hudgens’. She makes a transformation here that one could argue as a calculated move to continue moving further away from the Disney kid image. If that’s what she’s doing, it’s working. With The Frozen Ground and this year’s Spring Breakers Hudgens is moving outside the Disney box. Both films call for different performances, and she does an impressive job handling both challenges. Some of her material here is absolutely trite, as she is playing young mother doing drugs who ran away from home. When Hudgens has to reveal that backstory, it’s better than it sounds. Cage and her bring a warmness to the film’s chilly atmosphere.
Anyone who has seen Adaptation, Lord of War, Bringing Out the Dead, or The Weatherman will be reminded again Cage isn’t an actor who simply “loses his shit”. Like Hudgens, Cage is saddled with material that could go either way. The first half of the film, in particular, is front-loaded with exposition. Cage pulls it off with a calm and simple performance. He isn’t doing anything showy here, only doing what the role calls for.
On the other side of the spectrum, Cusack goes broad. Lately he’s seemed to indulge some bombastic tics, and maybe that comes from working with nutso orchestrator Lee Daniels. Cusack may be playing Hansen exactly as he was, but in a movie, it’s serial killer performance 101. There’s the awkwardness, the overly friendly with strangers side to him, and all that fluff. Cusack is most comfortable when acting with Cage, and there’s a scene towards the end with the two of them that almost redeems the film.
If you want to see Cusack truly not hitting the breaks at any stop, go see his performance in The Paperboy instead. That’s a movie that takes chances, whether you love them or hate them, while everything in The Frozen Ground lies in the middle. Walker doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel, nor does any other thriller for that matter, but at least do something with it for an audience to get onboard.
For the most part, the movie sits onscreen. The third act has more of a pulse to it, as everything that came before it is like an extended set up. 50 Cent’s pimp comes into the spotlight raising already high enough stakes. It’s entertaining by the end, but like much of the film, unnecessary, factual or not. The Frozen Ground is an example of a film that possibly could’ve used more fictionalization.
The Upside: Nicolas Cage does solid work; some coldly effective landscape shots; seeing Cusack and Cage go at it
The Downside: Radha Mitchell is sorely wasted; Jack Halcombe’s personal life is a structural and dramatic problem; the first hour has a tendency to drag; it’s tough for someone like 50 Cent to disappear into a role
On the Side: Glenn Flothe’s name was changed to Sgt. Jack Halcombe for the film.