In his 2010 review of Hot Tube Time Machine, the late, great film critic Roger Ebert stated that in 55 features, John Cusack has hardly ever made a bad one. He was referring to the ineffable ‘Cusackness’ he brings to every film he is in – that humble, genuine, over-articulate man-boy seen in his most memorable roles, including Say Anything and High Fidelity. In recent years however, he has been cast against type: as Edgar Allen Poe in The Raven, in The Paperboy as a sweaty murderer, and now in Scott Walker’s The Frozen Ground (2013), where he plays real-life 1980s serial killer Robert Hansen.
From 1971 until he was convicted in 1983, Hansen abducted up to 21 girls, flew each one over in his personal plane to the remotest Alaskan wilderness, and murdered and buried them there. The film starts when teenage hooker Cindy (a scantily-clad Vanessa Hudgens) escapes Hansen’s sadistic clutches and accuses him. The cops are sceptical, but State Trooper Jack Halcombe (Nicolas Cage, thankfully reigning it in this time around), puzzling over several corpses he has discovered believes in Cindy and starts to investigate further. The relationship between Cage and Cindy – and the bureaucracy of obtaining a search warrant – is the unexpected centre point on which the dramatic tension of the film pivots.
Director Walker, who also wrote the screenplay, never gives the considerable cat-and-mouse potential of Cage and Cusack room to materialise. Both actors have more to give than their roles allow them to. Softly spoken Jack has none of the inner depth that wracked Stellan Skarsgård and Al Pacino’s detectives in both Insomnia films and only an overbearing wife (Radha Mitchell) nagging him to take a job in the private sector. In Insomnia, the landscape becomes attached to the characters – a living, self-actualising entity – but in The Frozen Ground, although beautifully lensed by cinematographer Patrick Murguia, Walker fails to establish the atmosphere of an era or the same sense of place.
The film’s based-on-fact serial killer plot will also, unfortunately for Walker, remind viewers of David Fincher’s Se7en and Zodiac, when the film more closely resembles nondescript late 90s serial killer mystery-thrillers such as Philip Noyce’s The Bone Collector and Gary Fleder’s Kiss the Girls. The Frozen Ground is a by-the-numbers addition to a well-worn genre that is destined to occupy the supermarket bargain bins sooner than perhaps expected. Sadly, even Cusack can’t save this one.