Films that have the true story tag attached to them escape a lot of criticism. How are the audience to know how close we are to the truth, the run of events, to reality?
In The Frozen Ground, out in cinemas worlwide now, director Scott Walker has made sure that we know he’s tried pretty damn hard to get close. The context is laid on thick with titling at the start of the film, and dedications to Robert Hansen’s (the serial killer, played by John Cusack) victims at the end. The words ‘true story’ flash up on trailers, posters and previews until you mourn that Frozen Ground has merged with the countless other films ‘based on real events’.
But watching the film, these words do chill you. They bring you into the midst of the characters’ nightmare. Jack Halcombe’s (the straight-arrowed cop, played by Nicholas Cage) intense empathy for near-victim Cindy Paulson (Vanessa Hudgens) becomes the audience’s. Hudgens delicately balances the trauma of her attack with attitude giving the story spark, and its only really original facet. The creepy bespectacled, hunting fanatic Hansen and the righteous and frustrated Halcombe are certainly nothing new.
The pace is a little slow, but the classic witness protection scenario gives the story a second edge. Cindy’s incessant disappearances allow Cage to take on the paternal figure – his wife doesn’t play ball, cue further tension and frustration. Also this isn’t just a cop v. criminal story where the story flies off the wall into the realms of fantastical illegality – Cage is forced to build his case and find conclusive evidence before his search and arrest warrants are granted.
The film climaxes as the team searching the killer’s house work against the clock until Hansen, displaying ever more freakish characteristics in his interview, has to be released. Frustration hisses in Cage’s face in this head-to-head as his argument is sent round in circles. Yes I slept with them. No I didn’t kill them. Until eventually the conclusive evidence is found, and Hansen’s specter stands in the door in the form of Cindy Paulson. “I should’ve killed you when I had the chance.” Case closed.
Walker made what he saw. In one sense to say the film is unoriginal is unfair as it recorded and dramatized real life events. As Vanessa Hudgens says above, the respective characters spent time with the people who lived through these terrible events. But then perhaps we seek something a little more. What do we have Hollywood for if it isn’t constructing stories more exciting than reality? In Frozen Ground adherence to events ultimately affects the film in two ways, tying the plot down to a kind of simplicity (it’s not Poirot) while giving it a harsh reality to many of the scenes. The hunting trophies in Hansen’s cellar were set up in exactly the same way when these events occurred. That’s enough to send a shiver up anyone’s spine.
The Frozen Ground is out now in the UK and the USA
Interview and review by Tom Witehrow