On paper, at least, Winter of Frozen Dreams has all the makings of a tawdry, seamy, sensationalistic piece of B grade filmmaking: sex, greed, desperation, money, mystery, and murder—the whole schmeer. Based on the 1990 book of the same name, it presents as a true crime thriller of the “ripped from the headlines” variety, an account of the central events of a highly publicized murder case in 1977 in Madison, Wisconsin.
It has all the potential to be a nasty little piece of work, and that’s what I was hoping the full film would turn out to be, after I caught about 15-minutes of it one night on the Lifetime Network—something along the lines of To Die For maybe. Or one of those great John Dahl neo-noirs from the early ‘90s, something semi-self-aware, a film that allows imagination to infest the factual story, to allow a little bit of lunacy to take hold and transform the already bizarre facts into something transcendently weird.
Instead, Winter of Frozen Dreams is (I guess apropos of the title) a bit inert and listless, just as if it had been bogged down by ice and snow, the exact opposite of the overheated mess I wanted it to be. Staid and clinical, it’s not exactly terrible– at times it does an adequate job of presenting the case and hovers a bit around issues of the banality of evil without exactly delving in to them—but it’s not all that remarkable, either.
But so much potential wasted… sigh. Thora Birch (who, in the wake of American Beauty and Ghost World seemed poised to become one of our more promising young actresses, before falling off the face of the earth) plays Barbara Hoffman, a young biochemistry grad student at the University of Wisconsin. Barbara is, to all appearances, the perfect student and the perfect daughter – smart, beautiful, and ambitious. But by night (ha!) she somehow has ended up working as a prostitute named Linda in a local “massage” parlor. And she also happens to be an unrepentant serial killer, to boot. So, see? It’s good stuff, a corker of a story.
The film opens with the closing day of her trial for murder of one of her johns, Harry Berge. Berge became her “fiancé”, and then fell afoul of a life insurance scheme she had hatched, a plan that she then springs again on her other fiancé, Jerry. Hoffman is found guilty at the outset of the film, ruining pretty much any and all suspense that could have been generated (I know it’s based on true events and the outcome is freely available to all, but the case was only really big locally, and it was almost 30 years ago).
The film then fades back three years to Christmas Day, 1977, when her first victim is uncovered, quite literally, in a snow bank (from a tip by that other fiancé, Jerry Davies, who himself ends up dead a few months thereafter). From then on it is a jumbled collection of flashbacks, and flashbacks within flashbacks, jumping around in the chronology of the case haphazardly and to no real purpose.
The film is split between episodes focusing on Hoffman, and the parallel police investigation by homicide detective Chuck Lulling, who always seems to skirt around Hoffman without ever going straight after her (even though throughout Lulling is convinced she is the killer). It’s odd – it almost seems like the two parts of the film have been sliced out of completely different movies and then grafted together with no real thought to whether they will work and complement one another. There’s no desperation on Hoffman’s part as the noose tightens around her neck, nor is there any real urgency on Lulling’s end to track down the killer. Again, it’s like everyone is frozen in ice.
This dynamic – or, well, lack thereof—carries over into the main performances, as well. Birch is oddly distant, carrying the character’s detachment into the performance itself, to its detriment. You wonder if her lifelessness is meant to be a characterization of Hoffmann, or is just an exponent of her lack of enthusiasm for the film. She is inscrutable without being all that alluring – she looks like she stepped out of Femme Fatale central casting, but is missing that little engine of amoral insouciance that could have added depth to a character that remains all impenetrable surface throughout.
The biggest mystery in the end is not why she bent men to her will so easily, but how, because I’m just not seeing it. Hoffmann’s decades long silence on the case might have something to do with this, but that’s where invention and imagination should step into the breach and at least posit some reason for her motivation. Instead, we are left scratching our head, at best, or nodding off into indifference.
Keith Carradine, on the other hand, is a delight as the grizzled, avuncular Lulling. Street smart and instinctive, he is a classic archetype of the crusty old school detective, a mixture of whimsy and wisdom. He’s a throwback, and seems to know it, and seems to even know that he is probably in the wrong movie (I know this is a character based on a real person, but just bear with me here). He’s such a joy to watch, that I almost wish he’d get his own Columbo-esque series of made of TV specials.
By eschewing its potential for gaudy outrageousness and not following through on its promise to be the sleazy bit of trashy neo-noir B moviemaking it has every right to be, Winter of Frozen Dreams betrays its material and its audience, opting for a rather confusing, mostly boring, and almost totally inert middle ground that goes nowhere fast towards its inevitable conclusion.
The accompanying extras for Winter of Frozen Dreams are remarkable for their unremarkability. A lengthy interview with Keith Carradine meanders over most of his prior career before addressing the film at hand, and when it does, is particularly uninsightful. The “behind the scenes” interviews focus mainly on the town of Schenectady, New York, where it was shot. A text based recap of key events of the case is set to music and still from the film, and clears up a few ambiguities which were never cleared up in the film. It’s fairly matter of fact, and contains this gem “According to reports from Taycheedah State Prison, Barbara Hoffman now has conversations with her dinner plate”. Brilliant!