With just two weeks left until he and his family move to start a new life away from the force, Alaskan State Trooper Jack Halcombe (Nicolas Cage) is hoping for a quiet exit. Those hopes are dashed, however, when he is handed the case of a murder victim, whose body has been discovered buried in the wilderness. When he crosses paths with Cindy (Vanessa Hudgens), a trouble young woman who has recently escaped the clutches of mild-mannered psychopath Robert Hansen (John Cusack), Halcombe soon finds himself going up against one of the most prolific—and horrific—serial killers in Alaskan history.
While it may be based on a terrifying true story, The Frozen Ground plays out like a run of the mill police procedural. Cage is solid, if uncharacteristically subdued as Halcombe; that’s no doubt an accurate portrayal of the man, but without the trademark spark, it feels like he’s simply there to join the dots. Similarly, Cusack never quite convinces as the monstrous Hansen. You could argue that’s because Hansen was extremely adept at hiding his true self, wearing a softly-spoken mask of a respected pillar of the community and devoted family man – but Cusack’s detached air seems to go beyond just careful characterisation.
It’s left to Hudgens to provide the energy, and she puts in a brave performance that’s a million miles from her peppy High School Musical persona. Yet she is boxed in somewhat by the clichés of her character. Cindy is a chain-smoking, drug-addicted, prostitute, so – like most of the other women in the film – spends the majority of her time in half-clad victim mode (Indeed, only Radha Mitchell is spared this fate, although doesn’t fare much better she is given about five minutes of screen time to portray Halcombe’s unhappy, nagging wife). Hudgens is, however, given one of the best scenes in the film, when she finally seals the fate of her ridiculous pimp (Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson, also credited as a producer).
Visually, the film is striking; Patrick Murguia’s cinematography capturing the isolated beauty of the Alaskan landscape – it’s difficult to imagine more perfect terrain in which to cover up such heinous crimes. But while Murguia’s’s camera may soar over the frozen ground, the film itself spends most of the time stuck in them mud. There are some elements of what could have been, not least when Halcombe and Hansen finally go toe to toe in the climactic interrogation It may be that by attempting to do justice to the story and its victim – a noble task – writer/director Scott Walker has played rather too safe with his debut film.