Films based on true stories can tend to be highly dramatized, but The Frozen Ground (2013) sticks pretty close to the facts, or the ones that are known. Based in Anchorage, Alaska, the film follows the crimes of serial murderer Robert Hansen and how he was eventually caught and convicted. The cast includes Nicolas Cage, John Cusack, and Vanessa Hudgens, and all do an excellent job of telling the real life tale of what happened in 1983. The film was shot on location in Alaska in a space of 26 days, and for such an intense film that is no mean feat given the weather conditions in Alaska. Some films are made to entertain, but films such as this are created to remind us of the brutal realities of life, and the flaws that exist in humanity.
One may think this is a film about Robert Hansen, but I see it as Cindy Paulson’s amazing tale of survival and bravery, but it also highlights the inadequacies of society, and how people judge others and enable criminal activity. I watched the film not knowing anything about the characters, and then read up to see how accurate the film was. What struck me was the ignorance of the community in Anchorage, and how people dismissed prostitutes as liars and worthless people. Many of these attitudes contributed to the death toll (which may never truly be known) and is a failing of humanity. Some of the names have been changed, in part because those people are still alive and may not have agreed with some of the scenes, but nonetheless, it doesn’t change the essence of the film, only how certain players reacted.
Robert (Bob) Hansen, was a baker in Anchorage during a period where the Trans-Alaska Pipelines were being built. This brought in a population of transient workers, and a demand for low-end bars and entertainment for those workers, which changed the fabric of the community. Hansen was a typical family man, with a wife and two children, a business, and was a regular churchgoer (Lutheran), and considered a respectable citizen, however, he had a murky past. I often find people relocate to remote areas to escape things, and Hansen was no different. Originally from Iowa, there was no one in Alaska that would know of his background. He had kidnapped, raped, and murdered (by taking his victims in his plane and letting them loose in the wild, and then tracked them and shot them) at least 17 women over a decade, some who have never been identified. The women he targeted were prostitutes, and strippers—people who were transient in the area and who would not be missed. It was only when workmen discovered bodies once the snow had thawed that the police knew there must be a serial killer.
The film doesn’t paint a great picture of Alaska, where the community turns a blind eye to things, and seems so removed from reality. Cindy Paulson at first doesn’t garner much sympathy because each time she tries to escape from the police she goes back to prostitution and nearly gets killed, but we have to remember she was 17 years old, her mother had her when she was 15 years old, and had also been abused by her uncle. As the film progresses, you see a vulnerable teenager who fights to survive, but who was clever too. She remembers the license plate of the vehicle, describes the house she was kept captive in, and she left her DNA in the car so she could prove she wasn’t lying. You can get angry at the police when they say she must be lying as she was a prostitute, and Hansen a respectable member of society, even though he had a record and previous accusations of rape that had been thrown out. What this should remind us is not to judge others based on status or appearances.
Nicolas Cage, plays State Trooper Jack Halcombe who pursues the cases of the missing women (based on the real life character of Glenn Flothe), but the forgotten heroes of the real story are Robert Yount, the truck driver who found Cindy when she escaped and alerted the police, and APD officer Greg Baker who believed Cindy (and sent her file to Flothe) despite his superiors dismissing her story. They were both instrumental in making Cindy a credible witness. As a film, one should never glamourize the life of a serial murderer, but it should show us how and why they got away with things, and make us think a little more of what we see around us. Perhaps many of us turn a blind eye, take advantage of people, or judge others unfairly?
Little is made of the false alibis made by Hansen’s friends John Henning and John Sumrall that enabled the crime spree and façade to continue. One even knew of the false insurance claim made which helped Hansen to buy a plane. These people have a part to play in these crimes, and once those alibis were broken it enabled a search warrant to be issued. A frustrating part in the film was the DA’s reluctance to issue a search warrant, even though Cindy Paulson was a witness, because the the alibis were given by respectable members of the community. That is indicative of red tape that doesn’t protect society, and a DA that judges people rather than be impartial. The lesson here is that respectable people can and do lie.
Hansen, is played chillingly by John Cusack, who looks geeky, and but turns once alone, while Cage’s portrayal of Halcombe who fights against the odds gives us hope that humanity has some good people in the world. If anything this is a film about society and humanity, and how people use one another and that we really don’t know what happens behind closed doors. Hansen’s wife didn’t feature much in the film, and part of the plea bargain Hansen made (in return for revealing where the other bodies were) was that there was to be no publicity about his crimes. He died in 2014 of natural causes, but his wife remained in the area and continued with the bakery business. It was no surprise that she was attacked and eventually left town. While she was not responsible for the crimes, how could she have not noticed the trophy items in his den, the hidden map behind their bed? Some say she naïve, but was that ignorance?
The film left me angry at society, in that there were people that could have seen the signs, and prevented the deaths. One can also say that the women who were kidnapped were careless, but being foolish and making a mistake doesn’t mean that you deserve to be tortured, raped, and murdered, and that to me is the message in the film, and people are never what they seem. The quiet ones are the ones to look out for, but also as society we should look out for one another. If Cindy Paulson had not survived and testified, would that death toll increased and would Hansen ever have been caught? How many other similar cases are there that we just don’t know about? When a horrific film is based on real events, we as members in society should take note, and learn from it.