A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
Anchorage, Alaska, circa 1983, looks and feels like a pioneer town in the Wild West in "The Frozen Ground," Scott Walker's new crime thriller (and first feature). It's a town teeming with strip clubs, drug addiction, prostitution, and runaway girls whom nobody would miss if they went missing. And they do go missing, in droves. Based on the true story of Alaskan serial killer Robert Hansen (played here by John Cusack), and detective Glenn Flothe (named, in the film, Jack Holcombe, and played by Nicolas Cage) who, in investigating a series of missing persons reports as well as a couple of dead girls dug up by animals out in the wilderness, starts to wonder if all of these events aren't somehow connected.
"The Frozen Ground" trucks in cliche, as most serial killer and police procedural films do, but the strength of the acting (from the leads down to people with only one or two lines) helps ground the film. Filmed in a frenetic style, with gigantic moving frenzied closeups, and an almost total lack of establishing shots, "The Frozen Ground" is best when it lands, and stays, on the faces of the leads: Nicolas Cage, John Cusack, and Vanessa Hudgens. When we are looking at their faces, we don't need to be reminded of the stakes. They're there in plain view.
It's hard to do something new in the serial killer genre, especially since the field is so over-saturated, from the 24/7 Investigation Discovery channel to "Criminal Minds"'s weekly obsession with how dangerous it is to be a woman because one minute you're walking down the street, minding your own business, the next minute you're chained up in a dungeon. All of those familiar elements are here. Jack Holcombe even has a resentful wife (Radha Mitchell), complaining to her husband about how hard he works, before doing an unmotivated about-face in a later scene. Why do movies so rarely know what to do with wives of workaholics? Why are they usually given the role of nag, before coming around in the final hour?
But "The Frozen Ground" is not trying to re-invent the wheel, and it also isn't trying to imitate "Seven" or "Silence of the Lambs." It is interested in Holcombe's increasingly urgent investigation, and the pushback he receives from higher-ups who don't want to re-open what were considered to be closed cases. There's one shot of Nicolas Cage sitting in a dark office, staring up at a bulletin board, covered with snapshots of missing women. That one shot establishes so much: his feeling of urgency, the sense of how huge this thing could be if anyone could find the missing links, and the loneliness of his quest.