In the Venn diagram of The Frozen Ground and Things That Interest Me, here’s the shaded overlap: Nicolas Cage, Serial Killer. That’s an awfully short list. Good script, exciting story, plausibility — none of these get anywhere near the middle.
That last one — plausibility — is particularly vexing as this film is based on the real-life manhunt for serial killer Robert Hansen, who kidnapped, tortured, raped, and then hunted women in the Alaskan wilderness, finally killing them. One of his victims, Cindy Paulson, escaped, and her eyewitness account became the first big break in the case. Her influence on this film is significantly less positive.
The truth of the matter is that the actual events weren’t exactly made for Hollywood. Investigators were only beginning to realize they were dealing with a serial killer when Paulson escaped. Hansen’s M.O. involved flying the women to his cabin; Paulson escaped, in fact, while he was loading the plane. Police were then able to take her to the airport, where she identified Hansen’s Piper Super Cub. After breaking Hansen’s alibi for the night of Cindy’s escape, police searched his home and eventually discovered the murder weapon, as well as a map on which Hansen had helpfully marked the locations of the graves of his victims. Hansen confessed. Truth, as it happens, isn’t always stranger than fiction.
Writer-director Scott Walker fixed that, though, by speculating what would have happened if 18-year-old prostitute Cindy Paulson (Vanessa Hudgens) not only teamed up with lead detective Jack Halcombe (Nicolas Cage), but remained a Hansen target to boot. I’m not speculating when I tell you that what happens is predictable nonsense.
All the faux excitement generated by Paulson’s peril is wrapped up in a script that wanders aimlessly between Halcombe, Hansen, Paulson, and a couple of ancillary characters — Paulson’s pimp and a hired thug — as if searching for its genre. Is it a police procedural, a thriller, or a redemptive tale of a brooding cop and a tragic hooker? You know it’s confusing when the man who murdered at least 17 women isn’t even the bad guy of the climax.
So back to my diagram. Let’s put a check next to Cage, who outperforms the script. But “serial killer” — we’re going to have to cross than one out. I think Walker must have been so determined not to glorify Hansen — he barely shows us anything the man actually did — that he ultimately made a movie about someone else.