After reviewing The Croods yesterday, I realized that I've somehow made it an unofficial Nicolas Cage review week. I must be making up for that stretch in 2012 where I ended up missing all three of the movies he starred in. Not to worry, today's look at The Frozen Ground will still somehow mark the 11th time we've discussed a Cage movie on the website. It's entirely possible that he's the most represented performer overall with only Jason Statham eeking out the slightest challenge.
Watching his performance in The Frozen Ground provides further evidence to one solid fact about the quality of a movie and the degree of intensity he acts in it. If he's bringing the full brunt of his charisma to the film it's either brilliant or spectacularly painful. It's like the film is trying to keep up with the level of energy that he's putting in. But when he gives a doughy-eyed and sensitive performance the movie the same rules apply, the film is a lethargic and broad piece of work that is not challenging in the slightest.
In fact, The Frozen Ground would have almost been entirely forgetful aside from one confusing line reading from co-star John Cusack. It's a thriller that could have been freshly rolled off an assembly for the way it embraces multiple clichés. But the film is going to stay with me for just a bit longer, because the brutal execution of college-aged girls makes the perfect fodder for a montage of the recently deceased and a melodramatic pop-rock song. The simplest rules of juxtaposition should have indicated that putting up an image of a girl who was literally hunted and killed in real life to the lyrics, "I could be the one place you've run", might be in bad taste.
Aside from that painful closing detail, it is unlikely I will remember anything else from The Frozen Ground. Nicolas Cage is Jack Halcombe, an investigator who has just two weeks left to go and is handed the case of a lifetime when another Jane Doe is found murdered execution-style in a shallow grave. Choice details that are from the little screenwriters helper include a superior officer that warns Jack to back off of old closed files and his wife, who has two speaking scenes, first chastises him for staying on the force and then smiles and shakes her head at the man who just has to do what he's gotta do.
The wife, played by Radha Mitchell, is one of many performers who shouldn't take roles this stereotyped with nothing to offer. Take the similarly obvious casting of Dean Norris as Sgt. Lyle, another tough cop role indistinguishable from any other tough cop role made worse by the fact that Norris just ended a streak with a character who toyed with the mold. The most thankless role belongs to Vanessa Hudgens, who plays the one who got away from the murderer and condemned to doing drugs and stripping in many badly lit scenes. The only thing that feels like an attempt to do something different with the stock parts is with Curtis Jackson as the pimp with a heart of gold. He also only gets three short scenes and two lines, but it was enough to show that he's still serious about acting.
Director and screenwriter, Scott Walker, working with cinematographer Patrick Murguia tries to keep the film moving with the feel of handheld camera work and the usual color palette for thrillers. Once again, I wish that people would think of a color outside of blue to shoot tense scenes in. The amber of the strip club is a welcome change of pace, but then it's the kind of warm, sensuous color you'd expect for that kind of environment. All the while the camera shakes around to try for us the sensation of "being there", made worse by the staggering amount times Walker blocks most of the screen with the back of someone's head.
All this comes to bear in an action scene so confusingly staged it could have taken place in The Overlook Hotel. It's in an inn where doors go inside and outside with three different viewpoints fighting for visual supremacy in halls that are covered and then not, then the snow starts and seems to stop then starts. There is no control over the POV, and considering that three of the four people involved in the scene have a rough idea of the layout, that means that the documentary-esque camera is not capturing anyone's point of view accurately. It is one ungainly mess of a scene, one made worse by making sure that we cut to the back of someone's head yet again.
Walker's plotting and dialogue are abysmal. A bible quote that opens the film ends up having little to do with the events. Then there is the complete dissolution of tension as John Cusack acts incredibly nervous in every scene, creeps out all the characters, and is practically bleeding evidence. You can thrill audiences by showing them something that the characters don't know, but both we and the investigators have access to the same damning clues, and the film plays out like a slow countdown toward the inevitable. Cusack makes this all worse by playing the murderer like he just got done watching Fargo and wanted to try a dark mirror of Frances McDormand's folksy charm.
Finally, much as it begins with Cage, it ends with Cage. He is dry and serious the entire time. His eyes let us know, yes, he does care. But there's no passion, no avenue that this character could have gone to inject some personality into another boring cop. It's not Cage's fault he was handed a bad character, he just didn't need to be so somber about it.
Screenplay written and directed by Scott Walker.
Starring Vanessa Hudgens, Nicolas Cage, and John Cusack.