Friday, October 22, 2010
Director: Adam Green
Starring: Shawn Ashmore, Emma Bell, Kevin Zegers, Ed Ackerman, Rileah Vanderbilt, Kane Hodder
Running Time: 95 min.
★★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)
Two scuba divers accidentally stranded in shark infested waters. A publicist trapped in a phone booth, pinned down by a sniper's rifle. A contractor buried alive inside a coffin. A mountain climber trapped under a boulder for 127 hours. Now we can add to that list three snowboarders trapped on a ski lift overnight in Frozen, the single location thriller inexplicably marketed as a horror movie. But whatever genre this belongs in, it still nonetheless represents some of my favorite types of films: Survival stories of ordinary people trapped in extraordinary situations. They often take place within a very condensed time frame, containing an almost palpable sense of urgency and suspense as people are forced to dig deep inside themselves as they stare death in the face. These films can work magic when executed well, but they're not without their drawbacks, such as the extra strain it puts on the writing, as much of the action (or sometimes lack of it) is confined to one location. With only one or two actors on screen at a time, few special effects utilized and an audience clamoring for a satisfying resolution, any problems with the script or performances are magnified ten-fold. It's also one of the few types of films where anything less than a perfect ending can ruin the entire experience, making the viewer wonder why they wasted their time in the first place. But writer/director Adam Green proves to be up to the challenge and while it's the simplest, stripped down story there is, it's also the hardest to tell cinematically. When something like this works, it really works, and there's no doubt that this one works.
Time is well spent in the early going getting to know the participants since their personalities will heavily inform the tragic and often frighteningly realistic events that follow, as well as our perception of them. Childhood friends Dan (Kevin Zegers) and Joe (Shawn Ashmore), along with Dan's girlfriend, Parker (Emma Bell) are spending a Sunday afternoon snowboarding before the ski resort shuts down for the week and they head back to school. After bribing the ski lift attendant earlier in the day, they again convince him to let them go for another ride that evening just before closing, with the resort nearly deserted. A communication breakdown causes another attendant to shut the lift down, unaware they're still on it. With a snow storm rapidly approaching, hungry wolves gathering below and the very real possibility they'll all die unless someone jumps, it becomes clear some really important decisions have to be made, and quickly, if they want to survive.
Nothing could ruin your enjoyment of this film more than picking apart every detail and complaining about perceived implausibilities in the characters' actions. It's inevitable dumb decisions must be made on their part and the ski resort's for the story to entertain at even the most basic level. Is it far-fetched that lift attendants would do something this stupid, and no safeguards would have been put in place by the resort to prevent it? Absolutely. But it's not completely impossible and the script has to be cut some slack in that regard otherwise we'd be watching a blank screen. Of course it isn't the wisest move to fall asleep with your bare hand gripping the metal safety bar in sub-zero temperatures, but I'll at least be grateful she saw A Christmas Story and wasn't dumb enough to use her tongue. What look like reasonable ways out of a situation like this on paper don't always go according to plan because sometimes judgment can falter under extreme stress, which this film reflected well. The events are presented are realistically as they can be in this context, while still allowing enough wiggle room for creative liberties to be taken.
This film is really about the three central characters and if they're not likable and interesting, then all is lost. In horror terms it would be easy to classify them as the frat boy, the hottie and the wisecracking best friend, and even though this isn't exactly a horror movie, those descriptions still hold. But that's fine because within that framework there's still plenty of room to create interesting characterizations and the actors do, especially Shawn Ashmore, who's had experience dealing with similar material before in 2008's The Ruins. He's even better here as "the third wheel" in best friend Dan's mismatched relationship with Parker and as the dire situation progresses he reveals himself to be a lot more than we first thought, while Dan reveals himself to be considerably less. What's most interesting about Ashmore's performance is how he hints that Joe's third wheel designation predated the ski trip and this event may not have been the toughest challenge he's had to overcome, and was maybe needed for him to finally step up. But the movie mostly belongs to newcomer Emma Bell, who isn't there to merely look pretty then die, but has a lot of small moments where she fleshes Parker out as a character, gradually breaking down her walls and permitting us to root for her. The dialogue in these survival scenes feel like the types of conversations people would really have if stuck in this predicament and potentially facing their final hours. Everyone will have their own idea how this story should end but it concludes the only logical way it can, even if all I kept thinking about was the massive civil lawsuit this ski resort will face.
Green previously directed the cult slasher Hatchet (unseen by me) a couple of years ago so that could account for the genre mislabeling of this, because other than a couple of gruesome scenes, much of the torture is psychological. It's cinematography and score suggest a first-rate thriller, not the D-level schlock I expected judging from the awful trailers that preceded the film. Or maybe this is a "horror" movie, but our perception of the word has devolved so much that it's difficult to recognize a genuine entry in the genre anymore. We should be so lucky if Frozen really was, because it would represent the best kind, one that urges us to put ourselves in the position of the protagonists and wonder what choices we'd make to survive.