The capture of a long-running Alaskan serial killer is depicted in the solid if unmemorable true-crime drama “The Frozen Ground.” Writer-director Scott Walker’s feature debut stars John Cusack as the deceptively mild-mannered perp, Vanessa Hudgens as one victim who managed to get away and Nicolas Cage as the investigating state trooper who used her testimony to end a murderous spree that, once fully uncovered, proved far worse than anyone imagined. Pic began opening in various overseas territories on July 11, with a U.S. theatrical launch planned for Aug. 23. B.O. prospects look so-so, but ancillary biz should be strong.
In 1983, Cage’s Sgt. Jack Holcombe (a fictionalized version of Glenn Flothe, though other principal characters retain the names of their real-life counterparts) is about to leave Anchorage for a new job and home with his wife (Radha Mitchell) and daughter when he’s assigned a grim new case. Another young woman has been found in the wilderness, her corpse dug up by wild animals. While authorities deny the murders are linked, Jack believes the similarities are too blatant to deny.
This latest grisly find comes right on the heels of police interviewing Cindy Paulson (Hudgens), who says she was abducted, raped, bound and tortured by local man Robert Hansen (Cusack). Though she was handcuffed, she managed to escape while he was transporting her from his home to his rural cabin. But because Cindy is an underage streetwalker with a lurid history, and the accused is a well-known family man with an alibi, the cops simply dismiss her story.
To Holcombe, however, she looks like the sole survivor of a kidnapper/rapist/murderer who might well be involved in many more missing-person cases than suggested by the few bodies dug up so far. Nearly all were at least peripherally involved in the local sex industry; several were last seen going off to a “$300 photo session” from which they never returned.
But Jack has a hard time keeping the now-wary, troubled Cindy on board as a willing witness — especially once she’s suckered into a strip club’s drug-addicting new-hire scheme — even as his investigation uncovers yet more circumstantial evidence incriminating Hansen. Meanwhile, the latter realizes Cindy could be his personal Waterloo and makes various attempts to finish the job.
The real Hansen, in prison sans possibility of parole, eventually confessed to murdering numerous women (as many as 21) from 1971 onward. Revealing whodunit early on, the pic could have used more vivid atmospherics and suspense to distinguish itself from myriad similarly themed (if mostly fictive) screen exercises. Only Gia Mantegna’s few scenes as a naively trusting, then terrified victim really bring the horror of these crimes to emotional life. Result hangs a tad slackly between thriller and procedural, but still holds attention throughout.
Hudgens is adequate in a role that should’ve been played more meaty (think Jodie Foster in “Taxi Driver”) than flashy, while Cage underwhelms in that mode of earnest, average good guy that always seems to stultify his interesting qualities as an actor. Cusack is fine as the harmless-geek-acting creep, though it’s hardly as startling a turn as his major stretch in last year’s “The Paperboy.” Underutilized bigger names in the solid supporting cast include Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson (also a producer) as Cindy’s pimp and Mitchell, who has two big scenes that contradict one another.
The highlight of a polished but somewhat impersonal tech package is d.p. Patrick Murguia’s frequent aerial shots of the remote Alaskan landscapes where private-plane owner Hansen hunted — not just for wildlife, but for kidnapped women he’d just let loose.