The Frozen Ground isn’t a moral disgrace, which is admittedly saying something for a contemporary serial-killer film. Writer-director Scott Walker doesn’t invite the audience to celebrate Robert Hansen’s (John Cusack) killing spree as an inevitable and vaguely justifiable reaction to a polite society’s mounting toxicity. The filmmaker respects the fact that Hansen’s a real person who, in the 1980s, killed over 20 young Alaskan women, whom he sexually violated first and later (mostly) buried under ice-crusted ground in a large, remote portion of woodland that he claimed as his “hunting ground.” Walker clearly understands that it would be disgusting to groom Hansen into another larger-than-life cinematic mastermind for audiences to semi-respect, and he’s never blind to the pain and torment that Hansen’s rampage wrought.
But taste and good intentions are only going to get one so far with a script this tone-deaf and direction this ugly and monotonous. It’s clear that Walker is angry with the police officers who refused to take Hansen seriously as a suspect because the victims were largely strippers and prostitutes and the accused was a mild, respectable, white family man (which is precisely, of course, the sort of person who’s often revealed to be the perpetrator of these sorts of crimes). Anyone who’s ever read a newspaper will be able to believe that the police are capable of such blind egotism and classism, but Walker paints most of the investigators as the kind of broadly ridiculous buffoons that one reliably encounters in a routine vigilante film; he squanders a promising opportunity to examine the social structures that lead to the unforgivable assumptions these investigators apparently indulged.
So what’s you’re left with, essentially, is a character study with the dramatic sophistication of a bad genre film, or a genre film with no excitement or sense of mystery and pace. Much of The Frozen Ground concerns Hansen’s pursuit of Cindy Paulson (Vanessa Hudgens), a victim who eventually managed to elude him, while Detective Jack Halcombe (Nicolas Cage) battles the moronic local police in his attempts to capture Hansen before he gets a hold of the tormented girl. It’s a serviceable dual-chase structure that Walker botches in order to belabor Cindy’s suffering in flashback sequences that show her chained up and sobbing while sitting in her own urine.
This unpleasantness is meant to affirm Cindy’s frailty and humanity, but the script is so superficial that we grow to empathize with the actress, not the character. It’s not yet apparent how much versatility Hudgens has, but she displays an admirable refusal to protect herself. She was the liveliest and most convincing part in Spring Breakers, and she has a few moments here that would be affecting in a more confident film. In fact, most of the cast, particularly Cage, Dean Norris, and 50 Cent, manage to invest their roles with strands of personality that are wasted. Only Cusack is terrible, as he makes a strained, obvious effort of his “under”-acting, cloaking every gesture in tics and quotation marks. Though to be fair, he gives The Frozen Ground precisely what it earns.