(by Dustin Putman
When was the last time a film came along causing such a visceral audience reaction that the viewer sat perched nervously on the edge of his or her seat, wiping away unavoidable tears while aching with a genuine, sustained fear over both the characters' threatened fates and the unthinkable—yet fully plausible—predicament they've found themselves in? Maybe 2008's cinema-verité monster-on-the-loose groundbreaker "Cloverfield." It's been a couple years for sure. Watching "Frozen," written and directed with an uncommonly savvy, airtight assuredness by Adam Green (2007's "Hatchet"), is akin to swimming in a giant, extra-duty washing machine for 94 minutes. In other words, it puts you straight through the wringer. While you gasp, the movie mischievously laughs. Article continues below
In addition to the picture's tightened vise grip over one's emotions, Green goes another step further to explore the human psychology that comes with a person being placed in a life-or-death situation. Terror, anger, blame, hopelessness, acceptance, bargaining—all of these are naturally and astutely explored by a trio of committed actors working with a screenplay that comes to be so much more than just another often-seen survivalist horror-thriller. The plot is a doozy, yes—it has been described in some circles as a snow-set variation on 2004's flawed but effective "Open Water"—but the depth of character and the masterful, unsparing grasp Green and cinematographer Will Barratt have over their mise en scene are the film's all-important special ingredients.
It's Sunday at Mount Holliston, a dinky, weekends-only New England ski resort where college friends Lynch (Shawn Ashmore) and Dan (Kevin Zegers) have come to shred some powder. Dan's girlfriend Parker (Emma Bell) has tagged along, too, her novice snowboarding skills only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the heightened tensions between herself and a feeling-slighted Lynch. Through a series of events best left discovered, the three of them convince the chairlift operator to allow them to get in one last run before the end of the day and are subsequently left stranded halfway up the mountain, nearly 100 feet in the air. Nervous chit-chat leads to outright horror when the lights are turned off and they come to realize they are stranded in the blistering cold and snow for five straight days with little chance of anyone finding them.
A crafty, inventive plot hook only goes so far if there is more style than substance and no one to care about at its center. "Frozen" understands this, turning what might have been an empty exercise overextended to the breaking point into a breathless, poignant, vibrant potboiler where nary a single scene, shot or frame is wasted. The opening twenty minutes are deliberate but absorbing, introducing the three protagonists—Lynch, Dan and Parker—and capturing the tricky, at times tense, dynamic between them. Dan and Parker are in love, making Lynch feel like the odd man out when all he wants to do is hang out with his best friend. Parker, thus, is viewed as the interloper in the equation through no fault of her own but the changing tides of adulthood each of them is currently facing.
Once they become stuck on the chairlift, the film really takes off, and in more ways than one. As Parker freaks out, Lynch tries to keep things light by taking their mind off the situation (i.e. "Name your three favorite types of cereal") and Dan begins plotting a rash move that could either make him the hero or bring him closer to death. Conversations naturally turn far more serious and introspective as the prospect of someone saving them dwindles and frost bite sets in. A discussion about 9/11 and the victims of the World Trade Center who chose to plummet from the building rather than burn to death may sound potentially exploitative, but it feels appropriate and realistic to young people glimpsing their own mortality. Without lessening its taut veracity, the characters little by little form into warm, three-dimensional people, and topics they discuss, from Lynch's story about how he met Dan in the first grade to Parker's heartbreaking empathy for her dog, who will starve to death herself if she never returns home, hit home and say quite a lot about the fragility of one's life.
That Parker, Lynch and Dan are reasonably smart people and take advantage of pretty much every chance they have to get out of their ordeal is appreciative, too. Emma Bell (2007's "Gracie"), Shawn Ashmore (2008's "The Ruins") and Kevin Zegers (2005's "Transamerica") deliver terrific performances equaling the intensity that writer-director Adam Green ratchets, embodying specific individuals rather than easy types. As for the tricks up his sleeve, Green does not disappoint. For a motion picture set primarily on a chairlift, it is amazing how potent the pacing and momentum remain. Story points involving wolves circling below, broken bones, and two separate attempts to get from one chair to the next are veritably chilling, almost too uneasy to take. Likewise, the camerawork is dynamite, knowing when to be intimate with the characters and when to back up and bring scope, movement and atmosphere to the proceedings. A sense of haunting isolation is palpable throughout.
One of the producing partners of "Frozen" is A Bigger Boat Productions, a clear reference to 1975's "Jaws." The two films are not similar from a narrative point-of-view, but they are on par as expertly devised and conceived thrillers that prefer old-fashioned, incomparable suggestion and restraint over graphic violence and gore galore to tell their story and create suspense. Furthermore, the attention to the human figures pays off handsomely and leaves one actively caring about their outcomes and recognizing themselves within them. It might have done well to add an extra beat or two at the very end, but that is the only possible quibble to give an unremitting film that orchestrates its frightening what-ifs over the viewer with the skill of a maestro. February or not, "Frozen" already has a reserved spot as one of the year's best pictures.