Chilling tale of a psychopath
Film of the week
The Frozen Ground (16, general release, 115 minutes)
DIRECTOR: SCOTT WALKER STARS: NICOLAS CAGE, JOHN CUSACK, VANESSA HUDGENS, RADHA MITCHEL, 50 CENT
One searches in vain through the childhoods of monsters like Robert Hansen for easy explanations. Born in Iowa in 1939, Hansen had a domineering father and was bullied at school on account of his acne and mild stammer.
Boo hoo. As a grown-up he took up hunting and moved to Alaska, and between 1971 and 1983 is estimated to have raped, tortured and murdered as many as 21 women.
Hansen hid in plain sight: he was married, had children, won hunting contests and seemed average in every regard. But, in June of 1983, he got careless, and one of his intended victims, a 17-year-old prostitute called Cindy Paulson, managed to escape. And Cindy would become a key player in the bid to convict him.
If it sounds like I'm giving away the plot of this grimly stylish little thriller, I'm not telling you much that you won't have found out yourselves after its opening five minutes, because from very early on in The Frozen Ground it becomes clear that Hansen is the prime suspect.
Scott Walker's film opens with the discovery of three bodies in the Alaskan wilderness in the summer of 1983. They're all women, all executed with a hunting rifle and all bearing signs of rape and torture.
When Sergeant Jack Halcombe (Nicolas Cage) of the Alaska State Troopers examines the crime scenes, he's instantly sure it's the work of a serial killer, but a lack of physical evidence makes the task of finding out who that is seem hopeless – until he gets a lucky break.
When a young street hooker called Cindy Paulson (the excellent Vanessa Hudgens) turns up in an Anchorage police station claiming to have been abducted and raped, the local cops are dismissive.
But Halcombe tracks her down and gets her to repeat her story, and becomes convinced that Hansen (John Cusack) is his man. He's a hunter and was accused of attempting to abduct and rape a woman in the early 1970s.
But Hansen is clever and has covered his tracks well. Anchorage's district attorney repeatedly refuses to authorise a search of Hansen's home, and Sgt Halcombe realises that the testimony of Cindy may be his only hope of conviction. But Hansen is determined to stop her before she gets the chance.
You never see sunlight in The Frozen Ground. New Zealand writer/director Scott Walker's debut feature looks like an early David Fincher film without the flashy editing: its palette is all bruised blues and muted greys, and as a result Hansen and his dogged pursuer seem to exist some cursed underworld.
This does match mood and story well, and draws a remarkably subdued and sober turn from Cage.
I like my Cage performances wild-eyed and crazy, like his wonderfully demented appearance in Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, but mugging and wincing might have been out of place here.
Perhaps chastened by the storyline's horrific nature, he gives a circumspect and still portrayal of a dedicated but otherwise unremarkable cop, and leaves the limelight to Cusack. Cusack is no stranger to the overripe performance either, and like Cage has a tendency to demean himself by appearing for money in very bad films.
But he's very good as Hansen, a thin-lipped maniac with an absolute lack of empathy. And overall The Frozen Ground is an effective and unsettling thriller that only loses momentum in a perhaps inevitably perfunctory final act.