Thursday, July 18, 2013

'The Frozen Ground' (2013) directed by Scott Walker

Jamie Edwards of Magic FM is full of shit.  This isn't in anywhere near the same league as Seven.
When does entertainment tip over into exploitation?  This is a film about the exploitation of women; encompassing everything from casual misogyny to child abuse to rape and, naturally, the cold-blooded, sadistic murders we know and love.  So far, so Hollywood.  What sets The Frozen Ground is that this is a  true story.  This verisimilitude is unique selling point of the film: a historical recreation of real life horrors.  The question worth asking then, is why.  Why are we being told this story, to thrill and shock us, or to educate and inform?

This is the story of the investigation and arrest of serial killer Robert Hansen, as played by John Cusack.   Set in the early 80s, our hero is crusading cop Jack Halcombe (Nicholas Cage), a family man just two weeks from retirement who's assigned to a missing persons case. Quickly he realises that a decomposing body found buried in the wilderness is the tip of a rather grisly iceberg. Soon he meets Cindy Paulson (Vanessa Hudgens).  She's a desperately screwed up teenage runaway who, as the film opens, is escaping Hansen's clutches.  She's been tortured and raped by Hansen, yet the cops don't believe her, believing him to be a respectable pillar of the community.  Only Halcombe takes her at her word and as they seek the evidence to arrest Hansen the two develop a spiky relationship that varies from outright antagonism to warped paternalism.

Nicholas Cage as Jack Halcombe, and Vanessa Hudgens as Cindy Paulson
The Frozen Ground sits squarely within the serial killer genre, wearing the conventions like a comfortable old pair of shoes.  This is a film where our hero cop has two weeks left on the force, a wife that's urging him to take a less stressful job and cute daughter whose only job is to epitomise innocence.  There are scenes that feel genre mandated: the morgue where a body bag is unzipped (cut to the grimacing faces of the men looking at the corpse), a helicopter swooshing through the rain to where a new body is discovered, the intensely creepy death-filled 'lair' of the serial killer and the obligatory, repetitive scenes of the hero being frustrated by the bureaucracy and incompetence of City Hall - why, if these stuff-shirts would just get off his back he could save these women!

Very quickly you realise that you've seen all this before.  Large cues are taken from Christopher Nolan's Insomnia and the grandaddy of the modern serial killer film, Silence of the Lambs.  There's a moody synth n' strings score that ominously underlines every sinister moment, effective enough, but a bit unimaginatively conceived.  Slightly more annoying is the over-the-top shaky cam present throughout.  I don't have a huge beef with shaky cam, it certainly doesn't make me nauseous, yet here it quickly gets a bit obnoxious.  Walker clearly wants to ground this film in reality as much as he can and shaky cam is a decent way of doing it - the technique adding a journalistic quality.  It's hugely overused here though - in some of the more crowded and dark scenes it's genuinely difficult to work out what's going on.

It's a bit distracting that Cage appears to be wearing the exact same suit from Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.  You expect him to whip out a crack pipe at any given moment.
These cinematic sins are small-fry when compared to the unpleasant sense of exploitation layered around the action. The film opens with an assurance that this a true story, an assurance that you'll find on practically every piece of marketing material.  Photographs of the actual victims in the case are even used as props by Nicholas Cage's character within the film.  As a coda,, these photographs are processed across the screen one by one to the soundtrack of some really shitty Nickelback sounding soft-rock. (seriously check it out, it's well crap) This is not only lame, lame lame, but kind of actually pretty offensive.

Clearly The Frozen Ground wants us to think it's memorialising the victims, the film justifying its existence as an educational tool to "tell their story".  They go so far as to make the absurd suggestion that as this is the first time the real-life 'Cindy' character has publically revisited her torture and rape, that the film's production might help her overcome some kind of psychological trauma.  This is hypocrisy of the highest order.  The reason this film exists at all is because someone saw a way to make a quick buck out of exploiting human misery.  The fact that the victims are dead is a boon to the producers - people that for obvious reasons can't object to their miserable deaths being used as fuel for a forgettable crime thriller.  

With this and The Paperboy is John Cusack entering the creepy psychopath phase of his career?  
That a lot of people expect to make a lot money from this production is at the core of why I didn't like this. A Hollywood film starring Nicholas Cage as a heroic detective and John Cusack as a creepy serial killer on a wide international release isn't an educational tool in the slightest; it's a commercial venture.  This rankles, and to take the argument to its logical conclusion, the investors in this film are vultures profiting from torture, rape and murder.  If the film were merely to have been inspired by real-life events, like Silence of the Lambs or Psycho, I doubt I would have had a problem at all.  But The Frozen Ground smugly sits atop a throne of self-importance, using real-life trauma not only as a cheap way of giving undeserved gravitas to some humdrum character development, but as an advertising tool.

It’s a shame because there’s some intelligence to the way we see Hansen and Halcombe both fitting into a wider continuum of misogyny.  The crimes of Hansen are shown as a natural extension of a wider disregard of the rights of sex workers, every male character objectifies Cindy Paulson in some form or other, be it as a potential trophy for their hunting wall, as the key witness in a criminal case or simply and straightforwardly as their literal property.

But this interesting critique is almost entirely undermined by the film committing the exact objectification on real-life murder victims.  This is the Hollywood meat-grinder: feed beaten, raped and murdered women in one end, and out the other comes a piece of star-studded commercial entertainment, polished to a mirror sheen.  

Is it a bad film?  No. It's 'merely' mediocre.  But there's a stench of hypocrisy oozing from the cinema screen, filling the room until you begin to gag on it.

The Frozen Ground is on general release from 19 July

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