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Frozen Ground, The

Lionsgate Home Entertainment // R // October 1, 2013
List Price: $24.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted September 30, 2013 | E-mail the Author
The Frozen Ground isn't that sort of serial killer film. There's no layer of whodunnit; a middle-aged and rather unassuming baker named Robert Hansen (John Cusack) is all but introduced
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as the murderer. The movie makes no attempt at glorifying Hansen's all-too-real reign of terror in Alaska thirty years ago. Only one of his presumed dozens of victims is seen being directly tormented by Hansen on-screen, and the scale of his brutality refuses to be explictly shown. There aren't any frantic cat-and-mouse chases between the killer and Alaska State Trooper Jack Halcombe (Nicolas Cage). Before the end credits start their upward crawl, their scenes together are basically limited to a pair of conversations in a police interrogation room. There is no ticking helpless girl in Hansen's clutches who is mere hours away from having her throat slit ear-to-ear. This story may revolve around one of America's most notorious serial killers, but first-time writer/director Scott Walker doesn't have the slightest interest in conveying it as a routine thriller.

Walker does deserve an enormous amount of credit for approaching seemingly familiar territory in a decidedly different way. Even apart from his three leads, Walker has surrounded himself by a number of other always-appreciated faces, among them Brad William Henke, Radha Mitchell, and Breaking Bad's Dean Norris. (The less said about the long-haired pimp played by 50 Cent, though, the better.) The atmospheric cinematography is often striking, and although The Frozen Ground essentially went straight to video on these shores, its production values are by any standard cinematic. The film benefits immensely from the location photography -- shot in and around Hansen's actual hunting grounds -- and the biting Alaskan cold is very much a character in its own right.

The most troublesome thing about The Frozen Ground is that it's very much the movie it sets out to be. The film is unmistakeably a drama, deliberately steering clear of any standard issue thriller conventions. The Frozen Ground weaves together three connected but
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largely separate stories: the calculated killer trying to evade capture, an investigating officer who remains doggedly determined despite his superiors' disinterest, and a self-destructive prostitute (Vanessa Hudgens) that could hold the key to ending Hansen's spree of murders. The central conflict in the film is, in fact, between this street-hardened teenager and the investigator desperate to keep her out of harm's way, be it from Hansen's machinations or her own hands.

Though it's very much appreciated that Walker has set out to make something different than the same stock thriller we've all seen however many dozens of times, The Frozen Ground is subdued to too far an extreme. There isn't a sense of urgency. The largely parallel storylines too often feel disconnected from one another. Though Hudgens is outstanding as the troubled Cindy Paulson, delivering what is easily the film's most complex and intense performance, she's surrounded by actors who are almost always muted. There's little fire to be found in Cage and Cusack here, too subdued to inspire much in the way of emotional investment. Walker is disinterested in conventional thrills but little else takes their place to truly engage. The frenetic editing and handheld camerawork try to infuse some energy into the film, but they instead make the early stretches of The Frozen Ground feel choppy and almost disorienting.

Some filmmakers aim in a particular direction and fail to hit their marks. Walker, on the other hand, makes it clear in the extras elsewhere on this disc that these are deliberate choices, ones that really are achieved rather than the aftermath of a misfire. I respect that he's trying to accomplish something more respectful and distinctive with The Frozen Ground, but the end result is too dreary, insufficiently engaging, and -- Vanessa Hudgens' tremendous performance aside -- disappointingly forgettable. Rent It.

This Blu-ray release of The Frozen Ground is astonishingly crisp and detailed. Contrast remains robust throughout, benefitting from deep, inky blacks. Though its palette is generally frigid and gray, The Frozen Ground's colors can be striking when the opportunity presents itself. The scope presentation has been encoded at an impressively high bitrate, helping to stave off any concerns with the authoring. The Frozen Ground is also free of any artifacts from edge enhancement or excessive digital noise reduction. This is a first-rate effort from Lionsgate that leaves very little room for complaint.

The Frozen Ground takes a deliberately subdued approach, and much the same can be said about its six-channel, 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. Dialogue is the focal point, consistently rendered cleanly and clearly throughout. The surrounds are largely reserved for light atmospherics, such as the light rustle of leaves in the wind, as well as reinforcing the score. Activity in the lower frequencies is modest at best. Though the audio here isn't especially immersive, it's still a reasonably strong complement for such an understated drama.

There are no dubs or alternate mixes. Subtitles are offered in English (SDH) and Spanish.

Though Lionsgate decided against a theatrical release for The Frozen Ground on these shores, it's been lavished with the special edition treatment just the same.
  • Audio Commentary: Writer/director Scott Walker is joined by producers Mark Ordesky and Jane Fleming for The Frozen Ground's commentary track. Its central focus is on verisimilitude, incorporating as many real names, victims' photographs, and even some of the key locations that defined the real-life incidents. Walker's familiarity with the investigation borders on encyclopedic and is remarkably engaging.

  • Featurettes (34 min.; HD): The making of The Frozen Ground is documented in two separate featurettes. "Writing The Frozen Ground" (14 min.) is a detailed examination of how
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    the film took shape, including Walker's approach to adapting such horrific events, his intense research that ultimately led him to track down the real-life Cindy Paulson, visually breaking down a timeline to condense the narrative, and the many dozens of different drafts he wrote. "Examining The Frozen Ground" (20 min.) follows the production from there, delving further in-depth into the intense research that was conducted, casting the most key roles somewhat against type, and the cast and crew marveling at Walker's talents as a first-time feature filmmaker.

  • Extended Interviews (52 min.; HD): Longer versions of some of the interviews featured in "Examining The Frozen Ground" are presented here, among them conversations with Scott Walker, Nicolas Cage, John Cusack, Vanessa Hudgens, Kevin Dunn, producers Mark Ordesky and Jane Fleming, and Alaska State Trooper Glenn Flothe, one of the real-life investigators who helped bring Hansen to justice. There are some very inspired comments throughout all of these interviews, but Flothe's detailed discussion about Hansen's modus operandi ensures that his is the most essential.

  • Deleted Scenes (9 min.; HD): This reel of seven deleted and extended scenes clocks in at eight and a half minutes in total. Among the highlights are Hansen giving his unknowing wife a trophy from one of his kills and a fiery rant directed towards his attorneys once cornered. Writer/director Scott Walker offers optional commentary for these scenes, frequently placing them in the context of real-life events.

  • Trailer (3 min.; HD): An ostensibly theatrical trailer rounds out the extras.

The Frozen Ground comes packaged in a lightly embossed slipcover, and an UltraViolet digital copy code is tucked inside.

The Final Word
The Frozen Ground is a thoughtful and well-crafted film that shrugs off the trappings so often associated with serial killer antagonists. That would be commendable were it not also so dreary and uninvolving. This is a movie with an approach I respect but can't say I particularly enjoy, and it's difficult to recommend as a purchase sight unseen. Rent It.
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