Bringing the true story of the arrest and capture of Alaskan serial killer Robert Hansen to life with THE FROZEN GROUND is first time feature director, Scott Walker. Structuring the film as a police procedural with the audience knowing early on who the killer is and then working backwards from the perspective of law enforcement to obtain evidence to arrest and convict as opposed to a “whodunit”, Walker treats us to nail biting urgency and tension. Shooting in Anchorage and at the specific locations where some of the actual victims’ bodies were found, we are immersed in the horror of reality. Boasting a powerhouse cast, THE FROZEN GROUND captivates with compelling performances. John Cusack delivers an Oscar-worthy turn as killer Robert Hansen, going toe-to-toe with a mastery of intellect and will against Nic Cage’s Sergeant Jack Halcombe, an amalgamation of several key law enforcement involved in the investigation but primarily Detective Glenn Flothe, while Vanessa Hudgens amazes as she delves into the very heart of Cindy Paulson, drawing the audience ever deeper into the darkness, fragility and strength of this 17 year old girl.
Robert Hansen is currently serving 461 years in the Spring Creek Correctional Center in Seward, Alaska. One of the most notorious serial killers in United States history, Hansen is believed to have viciously raped and assaulted over 30 women and murdering 17 to 21 of them ages 16 to 41 between the years 1980 and 1983. When ultimately convicted, Hansen actually confessed to murders dating as far back as 1971. A respected member of the Anchorage, Alaska community, Hansen was beloved by all. Happily married with two children, Hansen spent his time as a local business owner, serving the community and occupying his spare time with hunting, so much so, that he became a champion hunter. He also managed to keep hidden crimes of his past which may have pointed law enforcement in his direction when women began disappearing and turning up murdered at an alarming rate. But life changed for Hansen and the entire United States criminal legal system as we know it on June 13, 1983, when 17 year old Cindy Paulson escaped Hansen’s clutches.
Taken captive by Hansen and held hostage in his basement lair where she was raped and beaten, Paulson was being taken by Hansen to his private aircraft so that Hansen could do what he had already done with so many other seemingly “unwanted” or “tainted” girls (strippers, prostitutes, wives escaping husbands, single girls, waitresses), so many times before; fly her out into the frozen grounds of the Alaskan woods and kill her. But Paulson saw a moment of opportunity and made a run for it. Initially, the police dismissed her story, trying to twist the facts to prove that Paulson was trying to do a shakedown on Robert Hansen, but then Detective Glenn Flothe of the Alaska State Troopers came on the scene and took charge. Already on the task force investigating the murder of three women found brutalized in various parts of the Alaskan tundra, Flothe saw truth and similarity with Paulson’s story. Calling in the FBI and agent Roy Hazelwood, Flothe put the wheels in motion to save a community and change history.
The performances in THE FROZEN GROUND are shockingly real and each strong and defined, starting with Nic Cage. As Sergeant Jack Halcombe, an amalgamation of real life Flothe and several other law enforcement personnel, Cage brings a compassionate earnestness and dogged heart brimming with wrenching determination. He wears Halcombe's heart on his sleeve but his conviction on his face and in his movements. Cage does some of the most seductively commanding interrogation scenes going toe-toe-toe with John Cusack’s Hansen, but what is even more engrossing is that he spins his tact and emotion on a dime when grilling Hansen and then when grilling the APD’s only witness, Cindy Paulson.
And start the Oscar campaign NOW for John Cusack! A beyond frightening portrayal, as Cusack does with everything, he immerses himself in the character and as a result, the audience. The little tics and personality shifts that he brings to Hansen stun. From being “an everyman”, liked by all, Cusack adds subtle shadings that are powerfully telling as to the schizophrenic dichotomy of the man. The deliberateness, the need for control, the rage that pushes him to rapid, wild-eyed, foaming killer. He is simply spellbinding.
Then you put Cusack and Cage together and the screen explodes, and never moreso than in the final interrogation scene. Like caged animals let loose in an arena - gladiator style - forceful, dogged, deceptive, the two create a riveting masterful dance.
But then there's Vanessa Hudgens. Talk about a pleasant surprise. As Cindy Paulson, Hudgens captures a multiplicity of emotional beats that draw one into the character. Hudgens succinctly brings the emotional roller coaster of Paulson but still laced with a wide-eyed wonder into her performance. And as with Cage and Cusack, scenes pairing Cage and Hudgens are also emotive and strong as Hudgens lets us see shifts of power and emotion at their most bare. One shortcoming, however, comes with her accent and vocal inflection which intermittently falter, clouding enunciation.
Creating a wonderful sense of urgency in terms of procedural and evidentiary aspects of a criminal investigation, instead of backtracking with a “whodunit” manhunt, writer/director Walker dives in head first, shows us who the killer is and takes on the time sensitive journey of getting the evidence to make an arrest.
A real technical standout is Sarah Boyd’s editing. Superlative. Fast paced, quick, rapid. You feel the urgency of the situation and know the clock is ticking. And thanks to the story construction, through the editing we not only live out Cindy's nightmare but that of those victims not as fortunate. Cinematographer Patrick Murguia delivers a beautiful cold steely noir palette that is enticingly attractive. Murguia’s visuals beautifully compliment the emotional tone.
A journey showing the world the truth of what happened in Alaska while embracing and honoring not only the victims but a community that was rocked to its very core, as noted by Walker, “Everyone on the set throughout the entire shoot was very aware that this is real, what we’re depicting actually happened all the time.”
Nerve-wracking, nail biting and blood curdling, THE FROZEN GROUND will send chills down your spine while warming your heart.
Written and Directed by Scott Walker
Cast: Nic Cage, John Cusack, Vanessa Hudgens
THE FROZEN GROUND is currently available on VOD and in limited theatrical release.