The most gripping crime dramas often revel in the minutiae and onerous procedures of police work. No screeching car chases or last-gasp races against time to unmask the least likely suspect as a killer, but instead quiet, intense hours in which dedicated men and women fight exhaustion and self-doubt to pore over towering files of evidence, looking for one gossamer thin link to break the case wide open.
Set in 1983 Alaska, The Frozen Ground boasts several engrossing sequences of police searching in vain for the physical evidence to convict a mild-mannered baker for heinous crimes against vulnerable women. It’s certainly a slow burn and writer-director Scott Walker is in no hurry to draw his debut feature to a nail-biting conclusion.
Based on the real-life hunt for serial killer Robert Hansen, The Frozen Ground celebrates the tenacity of one cop, who jeopardises his career and even risks his marriage to follow his gut instinct.
Detective Jack Halcombe (Nicolas Cage) is preparing to leave Anchorage with his wife Allie (Radha Mitchell) and children, when he receives a call that the body of a young woman has been found in the icy wilderness. The autopsy results are harrowing and suggest possible links with other missing women.
Soon after, Jack receives a file on Cindy Paulson (Vanessa Hudgens), a 17-year-old prostitute, who claims that she escaped from the clutches of Robert Hansen (John Cusack), who held her hostage in his basement den and raped her. Jack interviews Cindy and is moved by her tearful testimony, his interest piqued when the young woman reveals: ‘He said there were seven girls before me and I was lucky because they usually stay for a week.’
Convinced that Hansen is a dangerous serial killer, Jack works tirelessly to build a case against his prime suspect aided by Sergeant Lyle Haugsven (Dean Norris). However, there is no physical evidence and Hansen is a well respected member of the community, so if Jack’s hunch is wrong, the consequences for the police department could be grave.
The Frozen Ground is a solid genre piece, which embraces hoary archetypes: the grizzled cop close to retirement, the working girl who has been abused by the system, the family man with a sadistic streak. The plot gathers a slow, steady momentum, building to the inevitable final showdown between Jack and his cunning adversary.
Cage is unusually subdued, almost sleepwalking through some scenes, but Hudgens continues to impress in her transition from wholesome Disney Channel princess to gritty actress and Cusack is suitably menacing.
The stark sub-zero locales send a similar chill down the spine.