Film Review: The Frozen Ground

Impressive debut from New Zealand-born Scott Walker amounts to an exploitation flick about the hunt for Alaska’s most notorious serial killer, but told with style and panache. Strong performances, fevered pacing and immersive location lensing are

The Frozen Ground is a highly watchable, handsomely produced, fact-based cat-chases-rat thriller about a dedicated Alaskan trooper determined to entrap an Anchorage mass murderer. Easy on the eyes and convincingly hard-boiled, the film deserves big-screen patronage, although it’s out day-and-date as an iTunes rental and on VOD.

The story begins in 1983 in Anchorage as the cops rescue Cindy Paulson (Vanessa Hudgens), an 18-year-old street prostitute who, baring scars and chains, has just escaped an abduction by a trick with a plane. It soon becomes evident that Robert Hansen (John Cusack) was the failed abductor and that Cindy is his lone victim to elude death. Hansen works as a baker and, with wife Fran (Katherine Lanasa) and kids, seems to live a family life as familiar as a doughnut. The problem is that he loves hunting, killing animals, and kidnapping prostitutes in his plane and torturing them before he ends their lives in the wilderness, after letting them run free like game.

But Alaskan trooper Jack Halcombe (Nicolas Cage), who, as happens in so many cop tales, is soon to retire, cannot shake his suspicion of Hansen, as he’s familiar with the man’s long-ago detentions on sexual charges and many missing female cases spanning the ’70s and early ’80s.

Ironically, Halcombe, with wife Allie (Radha Mitchell), is also raising an all-American family. Mainly based on Hansen’s past crimes and a nagging hunch, he is determined to pursue Hansen after learning of Cindy’s ordeal. The problems for Halcombe are that Cindy has disappeared again into the Anchorage streets and stubborn D.A. Pat Clives (Kurt Fuller), like the Alaska Police Department, doesn’t believe there’s a mass murderer in their midst even though a number of club dancers have disappeared. And he refuses to issue a warrant for Hansen without solid rather than mere circumstantial evidence.

But Halcombe knows he has his man. Except that he doesn’t. He must find Cindy and get that warrant out of the D.A. Combing the seedy streets and clubs of Anchorage undercover with some law-enforcement colleagues, he finally finds the joint where Cindy, recruited by a drug-addicted dancer, pole-dances. He interviews her and learns of her troubled past and Hansen’s ugly habits in his dungeon-like man-cave from hell full of stuffed animal heads.

Back on the streets, Cindy returns to her pimp Clate (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson), while Halcombe continues his quest for physical evidence. The Frozen Ground being exploitation, even high-end, it’s hard to resist a woman-in-distress finale as Clate sends his thug Al (Bostin Christopher) to get Cindy.

The Frozen Ground is enriched by Lorne Balfe’s apt music, always setting the mood but never distracting from what matters onscreen. The ’80s period look is just right and the many scenes of a snowy downtown Anchorage or sweeping aerial shots of the Alaskan wilderness contribute to a real sense of place, whether ominous or down-home.

Often so strong with comedy, Cusack delivers industrial-strength creepiness as the monstrous Hansen. And Cage is a determined but laid-back cop hero easy to believe and admire, even when pushed to explosive anger by square wheels of justice. Making a giant leap from her TV and film starring roles in the “High School Musical” franchise, Hudgens assures that plenty of very “grown-up” work will continue to flow her way.