Nicolas Cage and John Cusack both started making movies in the ‘80s and became unlikely leading men. Where Cusack gained popularity as an offbeat but swoon-worthy romantic lead, Cage brought a theatrical, oddball intensity to his roles, which he later applied, with surprising success, to action movies and thrillers. The two performers worked together in the Jerry Bruckheimer production Con Air (1997), their unlikely pairing helping to enhance the movie’s extreme ridiculousness.
Now both Cage and Cusack are nearing 50, and though they’ve done strong work in character parts, each seems increasingly drawn to sober thrillers like The Frozen Ground, their first film together since Con Air. Cage’s Jack Halcombe is an Alaska state trooper on the trail of a serial killer who’s been murdering young women. Cusack plays the killer Robert Hansen, based on the real life murderer whose preferred targets were strippers. The movie sets up parallel tracks, following Halcombe as he reopens the case with the help of a victim (Vanessa Hudgens) who got away, and Hansen kidnaping and imprisoning another young woman.
Cage and Cusack both have equally famously idiosyncratic vibes—both can play heroic and creepy, sometimes simultaneously—and here they might have easily swapped roles. But neither is especially weird here; in fact, both actors are in a subdued mode, particularly Cage, who has lately taken his utter commitment to his characters so seriously that he’s receded into a kind of repetitive doldrums. It doesn’t help that as Halcombe, he’s stuck issuing warnings dire in tone as well as cliché (“He’s done it before, he’ll do it again!”) and making pedestrian just-one-more-case promises to his fraught wife Allie (Radha Mitchell). His performance as an unhinged state trooper searching for justice in the Wicker Man remake may have been roundly mocked, but at least it was memorable; this Alaskan counterpart has no such quality.
Cusack fares slightly better, though as in Grace is Gone, he lets geeky eyewear (Hansen wears large-rimmed glasses) do too much of the work for him. The freshest performance of the movie comes from former Disney star Hudgens, as a teenage prostitute, if only because her emerging skills as an actress are more surprising than the more familiar efforts of the movie stars or the many veteran character actors who surround them. In both The Frozen Ground and earlier this year in Spring Breakers, Hudgens is playing a girl in over her head who copes with surprising toughness.
As decent as Hudgens is, though, much of the movie still descends into a series of ugly routines: helpless girls pleading for their lives, cops working up righteous anger, and a serial killer with a dispassionate, banal exterior. That’s not to say that First-time writer-director Scott Walker turns the material into exploitation junk, but rather, he retains procedural elements to stave off voyeuristic cruelties. But he doesn’t offer much of anything new, either. As a procedural, The Frozen Ground is more like a TV-movie potboiler than something adventurous like Zodiac. It’s another true-crime story where the hero can’t make all the pieces fit.
One problem is that it doesn’t appear to matter where these pieces might fit: a sense of place might have rendered The Frozen Ground a more distinct portrait of crime in Alaska, but apart from the occasional local touch like a moose wandering into the frame in the dead of the night, it’s surprisingly anonymous. Hansen’s behavior is certainly frightening, in a generic sort of way, but it summons little sense of dread, in part because that serial-killer behavior feels common from too many movies like this one.
Within these hackneyed generic trappings, Cage and Cusack finally meet up about three-quarters of the way through the movie, indeed, about when they did in Con Air. Their confrontation pulses a bit, as Halcombe presses Hansen to confess to crimes for which he has a maddening deficit in hard evidence. But the resolution comes so abruptly that it lacks even the traditional satisfaction of serial-killer pulp, let alone the more nuanced pleasures of a detailed crime story.