“Three skiers are stranded on a chairlift and forced to make life-or-death choices that prove more perilous than staying put and freezing to death.”
Sometimes the best plots are also the simplest. Consider “Frozen,” in which three young people get trapped on a ski lift. It may sound like a flimsy idea, but when you stop to think about it, it’s brilliant exactly because it’s so basic. Say you’re swinging from a lift fifty feet above the ground in the dead of winter, with a storm moving in and a pack of wolves howling in the distance. Obviously, first of all you should shout for help and…oh, everyone’s gone home for the week? Well, then you could call someone…but you left your phone in the ski lodge. Hmm. Okay, what about jumping, then? It probably wouldn’t be that bad a fall, right?
Adam Green takes this idea and expands it into ninety-three minutes of tense and very human drama. It’s actually a bit of a departure for the writer-director, who is typically known for his horror films. The situation itself is actually horrifying, but in terms of what we think of as horror films nowadays, “Frozen” doesn’t quite fit the mold. The characters are well-developed, the acting is strong, and the filmmakers care more about building atmosphere than delivering gory effects.
The dialogue is very natural, but it’s not without humour: when discussing what would be the worst way to die, one character casts his vote for the Sarlaac Pit. As the situation worsens, the banter gives way to scenes of raw poignancy. Another character tearfully worries that if she doesn’t make it out alive, her puppy will starve to death, and will never understand that her owner didn’t mean to abandon her.
The filmmakers show remarkable restraint, which is what makes one particular scene particularly affecting. While other films would revel in the opportunity to showcase some gory special effects, Green focuses on what really matters: the emotion. As one character meets their fate, all the ugliness and pain of it is conveyed in the tears and screams of the two survivors. The loss of this person’s life isn’t reflected in torn flesh and arterial spray. It’s all in the anguished faces of two people who know they’ll never hear their friend’s voice again. It’s arguably one of the most disturbing death scenes in recent memory, and we barely see anything. That’s some pretty powerful filmmaking.
Of course, none of this would work if the acting wasn’t solid, and the three leads deliver in spades. Shawn Ashmore, who should be familiar to audiences as Iceman from the “X-Men” franchise, plays Lynch, a character who on paper could be very annoying. He does pot but criticizes people for smoking cigarettes, uses ski instruction as an opportunity to hit on girls, and vindictively undermines his best buddy’s girlfriend at every opportunity. But these don’t become Lynch’s sole attributes. They’re just flaws in an otherwise staunch and resourceful character. Ashmore conveys frustration and despair beneath a veneer of boyish nonchalance, and when the situation demands it, he believably rises to the occasion.
As Dan, Lynch’s best friend, Kevin Zegers is an appealing everyman: the sidekick of the troublemaker rather than the troublemaker himself. Dan’s girlfriend Parker is a source of unending resentment for Lynch, putting Dan in an unenviable position. Just as he sits between Parker and Lynch on the lift, he’s trapped between them in every aspect of his life.
Emma Bell turns in a tremendous performance as Parker. Despite what Lynch may say, she isn’t an idiot, yet you get the feeling that Parker spends a lot of her life apologizing. She’s the least experienced of the three, and in his despair, Lynch pins the blame for their predicament on her. But whenever there’s something to be done, Parker wants to know what part she can play. In a stark contrast to those listless horror heroines that just gum up the works for the rest of the characters, Parker won’t let herself be deadweight. You can’t help but feel for Parker; in fact, it’s probably her terror and sadness that connects most directly with the audience. She never falls completely to pieces, and although she screams and cries up a storm, it feels like a natural and sympathetic reaction rather than pandering to the stereotype of the useless screeching girl. Bell is brilliant in a role that could’ve been so much less than it is here.
Andy Garfield’s score, featuring some hauntingly tragic cello music, is a perfect accompaniment to the drama. It isn’t intrusive, as much of the atmosphere depends upon an absence of sound to emphasize the loneliness of the location.
The special effects are used judiciously, showing us the hardships the characters face without becoming gratuitous. The effects of frostbite, which increase in severity as the days pass, provide an understated but grim reminder that waiting to be rescued is not really an option.
The scenes featuring the ski lift were apparently filmed practically, making it necessary for the director and camera crew to dangle from a nearby chair as they captured the actors’ performances. Their bravery pays off, resulting in stark, hair-raising shots. We can’t take comfort in knowing that the movie was filmed against a green screen, with the actors hovering only six feet above the ground. They really are swinging fifty feet above the snow, so everyone involved deserves a round of applause for their commitment.
Some special mention should go to the animal trainers, responsible for the terrifying wolf attack sequences. It’s more well-known now that our fears about wolves have long been blown out of proportion, and that we’re a greater danger to them than they’ve ever been to us. But that knowledge won’t matter much when our characters find themselves face-to-face with this pack of snarling, opportunistic predators.
One of the great strengths of “Frozen,” aside from the emotional aspect, is that unlike many films of this kind, there truly is no easy solution to the problem that the characters conveniently forget about for the sake of drawing out the conflict. As I mentioned at the start of this review, these characters don’t have too many options. It’s pretty much wait, jump, or crawl along the lift cable until they reach one of the poles. Even if they get to the ground unharmed, there are wolves in the woods and bad weather on the horizon. There’s a sense of futility about the whole thing, but it doesn’t rob the movie of tension. It may be very likely that these people are doomed, but it isn’t a certainty. Without being hokey, the film reminds us of the strength of human spirit. Even when they’re facing death, these characters still try to help and comfort one another. It’s been said that disasters show us who we really are, and that’s certainly true here. These characters aren’t saints. They’re human, with all the frailties and nobility that that implies.
If you’re in the mood for a thriller that will put you through the wringer, “Frozen” will certainly deliver. It’s a nerve-wracking, deeply affecting film with a great hook, excellent writing and terrific performances. As you watch these characters struggle for survival, put yourself in their position…and try not to shiver.