The Frozen Ground is the incredible and chilling true story of the hunt for Robert C. Hansen, one of America's most notorious serial killers who brutally murdered 17 young women over the course of 12 years in the town of Anchorage, Alaska.
When teenage prostitute Cindy Paulson (Vanessa Hudgens, Sucker Punch) is found by police officers - beaten and pleading for her life - in an Alaskan motel room, everyone is quick to dismiss her version of events. However, US state trooper Sgt. Jack Halcombe (Nicolas Cage, Bad Lieutenant), soon comes to believe that Cindy is the only surviving victim of a local serial killer, responsible for a series of murders of young women in the past decade. Lacking the support of his department, Halcombe must find Cindy, gain her trust and form an unlikely partnership in order to track down the man who still wants to kill her.
You won't find many movie reviews with the words 'Nicolas Cage' and 'nicely restrained performance' in it, but that's the biggest thing that stands out about 'The Frozen Ground', which details the true story of serial killer Robert Hansen, who killed at least 17 (and possibly as many as 21) young women in Alaska between 1971 and 1983. Cage stars as the fictional police detective Jack Halcombe, who is an amalgamation of police officers who worked on the case, but primarily based on Alaskan State Trooper Glenn Flothe. John Cusack co-stars as the killer Hansen.
Directed by newcomer (and New Zealander) Scott Walker, 'The Frozen Ground' was shot on location in Alaska, using practical sets, which gives the film a gritty, realistic feel. The movie is also set in 1983, making this very much a period piece, although really only noticeable by the cars, clothing, and phones. Although the movie is about the hunt for a serial killer, it's very low on gore and action sequences – this is more of a dramatic cat and mouse game between the two leads.
The movie opens with police coming to the aid of handcuffed prostitute Cindy Paulson (Vanessa Hudgens), who has escaped from Robert Hansen and is even able to identify him. However, since Cindy is a prostitute, the police don't put a lot of weight into her claims, thinking she's just another working girl who got into a dispute over payment with a 'John'. On top of that, Hansen seems to have a rock-solid alibi for the evening in question. One cop, however, believes her story and gathers some other similar evidence about Hansen and missing girls together and mails it off to Jack Halcombe. Halcombe only has roughly two weeks left on the job before he plans to move out of the area with his wife and daughter, but the evidence he is given (and more that he gathers on his own) has him deciding to stay.
Unlike most movies about serial killers (both imagined or – as the case is here – real), Halcombe has his man pegged from the beginning. He knows Hansen is behind the disappearance and murders of local prostitutes – he just needs to gather enough evidence to make the charges stick. Cindy Paulson becomes his primary source of information in the case, as she's the only woman ever to have escaped from Hansen. A real father/daughter-like bonding develops between the two characters, as viewers learn Halcombe has some scars of his own, including a sister that was killed when he was younger.
'The Frozen Ground' isn't without some storytelling flaws, however – most notably the fact that every time Halcombe seems to rescue Cindy from trouble (be it on the streets or at the hands of Hansen himself), she manages to do something stupid and wind up in trouble again. In one particularly poorly-written plotline late in the movie, Cindy is racing away in a car from a 'bad guy'. She contacts Halcombe over the police radio who, instead of telling her to keep driving until they find her, or drive to the police station, tells her to drive to a location she knows and wait there for him. Of course, the location she goes to is a deserted, dangerous part of town where her pursuer can catch up to her and no one is around to protect her.
Also, while John Cusack would seem to have the juicy (and unexpected for him) role here as the serial killer, for the first half of the film he has very little dialogue at all and most of his scenes involve just walking around looking creepy. He's never really much of a threat in the traditional 'Hollywood' sense, but I suppose that's part of the reason that Cusack was given the part in the first place – since he has such a guy-next-door look about him (which was true of the real Robert Hansen as well).
'The Frozen Ground' got a very limited release in theaters earlier this year, which means most viewers' first exposure to the movie will be with this home video release. It's been easy to poke fun at Nicolas Cage over the past several years, as there seems to be no role and no amount of overacting that he'll say 'no' to. However, with this film Cage gives an admirable, low-key, and haunted performance that I think ranks right up there with a few of his best. While the overall film qualifies as 'rental' material, if you're a Cage fan, you' won't want to miss this.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Frozen Ground' thaws out on Blu-ray in an eco-friendly keepcase that houses the single, 50GB disc along with an insert containing a code for an UltraViolet copy of the movie. A slipcase fits over the keepcase, containing the same artwork as the box cover slick. The Blu-ray itself is front-loaded with trailers for Arbitrage, The Devil's Double, Margin Call, and The Lincoln Lawyer, plus a promo ad for the Epix channel. The main menu consists of a still of Cage and Cusack, with footage from the film playing in black and white in the background. Menu selections run across the bottom of the screen.
'The Frozen Ground' was shot digitally on the Arri Alexa camera, and maintains sharpness and clarity of detail throughout. While blacks aren't always as deep as one would like to see – sometimes causing a murkiness in the nighttime scenes (of which 'The Frozen Ground' has an abundance) – there are really no huge complaints here, and viewers familiar with movies that have been shot on the Arri Alexa can expect the same kind of visual quality here. While nighttime sequences sometime come off as a bit 'flatter' than others, the daytime sequences in the movie show off the kind of clarity that one would expect from a digitally-shot movie.
'The Frozen Ground' seems to have been shot with a more bluish/grayish hue in mind, perhaps due to both the fact that this is a historical piece (set in 1983) and the rather somber subject matter. Although it didn't affect my video score (since it's a director/cinematographer choice and not a problem with the transfer itself), I was distracted by the fact that the movie has such an abundance of hand-held 'shaky' camera shots, as well as close-ups. The close-ups may be simply due to the fact that the director wanted to mask any signs of the modern-day in the backgrounds, but the hand-held stuff was overused to the point that it was starting to give me a headache. Sadly, this 'style' of shooting is becoming far too prevalent in film today, and I don't believe it was the right choice for this movie.
I detected no instances of artifacting, aliasing, or other frequent issues in the video, so overall the picture quality for this release is above-average for a digitally-shot movie.
My biggest complaint about the DTS-HD Master Audio track is one that I frequently have with Blu-ray releases, and it all revolves around the way the soundtrack has been mixed. Once again, we get a title where the non-dialogue activity (be it soundtrack music, background noises, gunshots, etc.) tends to drown-out the spoken word. Sometimes I think viewers are so used to this imbalance, that they assume the track has been mixed properly, but when you're a reviewer who does most of his movie-watching after midnight with no desire to wake either the wife or the neighbors, this is the kind of thing that drives one crazy – constantly fiddling with the volume to hear what the actors are saying, then rushing to turn it back down when an action sequence occurs (or, in the case of 'The Frozen Ground', a scene takes place in an often-seen strip club blasting loud music).
However, 'The Frozen Ground' is far from the worst offender I've seen in terms of audio balance, and for the most part this is an above-average track, with nice use of the rear speakers both in terms of the musical soundtrack and for subtle background noises. Directionality isn't used as much as one might think, but I did notice it several times during the film, primarily when Cusack's character would head into the wild with his plane. While far from an 'immersive' audio experience, this is certainly a serviceable track…with my problems with the balance/mix being the only noteworthy complaint.
In addition to the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, the disc also contains a DTS-HD Master Audio Sound Check option, to make sure one's speakers are properly set up. Subtitles are also available in English, English SDH, and Spanish.
Watching Nic Cage give a nicely understated performance is one of the big selling points of 'The Frozen Ground'. While the movie is never quite fresh or original enough to make it stand out, the fact that it's based on a true story gives the proceedings some added weight, and the Alaskan setting provides for some nice visuals. Rent it.