It’s been so long since Nicolas Cage has starred in a straightforward thriller playing a realistic character that “The Frozen Ground” feels like a shock to the system — his, and ours.
Mr. Over-the-Top plays a state police detective struggling to build a case against a suspected serial killer in 1980s Alaska. This “based on actual events” case study hinges on the sexist blundering of the Anchorage Police Department, which had Robert Hansen (John Cusack) in custody, thanks to one victim tortured, chained up and facing death, who escaped. But they didn’t take the teenaged Cindy Paulson (Vanessa Hudgens) — a hooker — seriously.
“You can’t rape a prostitute, can you?” one cop sneers.
Detective Jack Halcombe’s boss (Kevin Dunn) thinks the missing young women, whose bodies start turning up, are “coincidences.” The district attorney (Kurt Fuller) is reluctant to bring a case.
But Halcombe (Cage) is sure he’s got his man. He is convinced by Cindy’s story and thinks he can keep her safe and get her to testify.
Halcombe finds a streetwise vice cop (Michael McGrady, in a stand-out performance) to show him the milieu of strip bars, pimps and hookers of “The Track,” Anchorage’s red light district.
This is post-pipeline Alaska, and New Zealand writer-director Scott Walker matches the sordid, dank look of The Track with the blue-grey skies of the back country, where bodies turn up as the frozen ground melts.
Interestingly, Walker keeps his crook and his quarry separated for much of the film, even though we know and Halcombe knows who the bad guy is. That changes the cat-and-mouse dynamic as we see Halcombe try to figure out the killer’s MO and build a solid case.
Meanwhile, the bad guy, a hunter and bush pilot, knows they’re onto him and covers his tracks.
Ex-Disney “High School Musical” princess Hudgens does her best to smudge up and dress down to make a convincing teenage girl with an ugly past, not trusting anyone and especially any man she meets, but young and foolish enough to figure she can survive on her own.
That’s a dicey proposition, as Hansen knows she’s the one person who can convict him.
Radha Mitchell ably plays Halcombe’s wife and rapper-turned-actor 50 Cent pops up as a pimp. Cusack, entering the character villain stage of his career, is realistically creepy here.
And Cage, without having to play a ghostly motorcyclist or hot rod driver from Hell or sorcerer or sci-fi hero or kinky cop, reminds us that he used to know subtlety. So even if “Frozen Ground” breaks little new ground in the serial-killer thriller genre, there’s hope Cage will leave the ham behind before Alaska freezes over.
THE FROZEN GROUND
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Vanessa Hudgens, John Cusack, Rahda Mitchell, 50 Cent, Kevin Dunn
Written and directed by Scott Walker. A Lionsgate release.
Running time: 1:45
MPAA rating: R for violent content, sexuality/nudity, language and drug use