Winter of Frozen Dreams (2009) / Thriller-Mystery

MPAA Rated: R for language, sexual content, disturbing images, and some drug material
Running time: 91 min.

Cast: Thora Birch, Brendan Sexton III, Keith Carradine, Leo Fitzpatrick, Dean Winters, Scott Cohen, Dan Moran, Adam Ferrara, Colleen Camp
Director: Eric Mandelbaum
Screenplay: Michael Graf, Michael Caughill, John Besmer, Eric Mandelbaum (based on the book, "Winter of Frozen Dreams: The True Story of Passion, Greed and Murder in Madison, Wisconsin" by Karl Harter)
Review published April 15, 2009

Set in the 1970s, Thora Birch (Ghost World, Dungeons and Dragons) stars as Wisconsin massage parlor prostitute Barbara Hoffman, a gifted student with a 140+ IQ who left her career as a biochemist behind to turn tricks for easy money.  We start the film off with Barbara in court, hearing the verdict passed down from a jury that she has been found guilty of at least one count of murder.  The nonlinear storyline dances back and forth in time, showing the impetus for Barbara's purported deeds, seeing a fast way to potentially make three quarters of a million dollars marrying a man (Moran) with a hefty life insurance policy.  Meanwhile, she is being investigated by lackadaisical police detective Lulling (Carradine, Bobby Z) for the murder, and his investigation is greatly assisted by the constant snitching of Barbara's would-be beau Jerry Davies (Sexton, Pecker), who is so convinced of her innocence, he can't help but cooperate with the cops "for her own good."

Winter of Frozen Dreams adapts the book by Karl Harter, based on the true story of what would become the first televised trial for murder in history, reportedly. The film plays like a very racy made-for-basic-cable flick, which is likely where it will play for years once the naughty bits are trimmed out.  It's not a bad flick as far as these things go.  The acting is fine, the sense of period believable enough and not overbearing, and the characters are colorfully enjoyable to watch.  The story is certainly sensational enough on its own to catch the eye of anyone interested in true crime.  Though not a big budget or a high profile film, there is enough talent put into a decent story to think a crackling, low-rent crime yarn could result.

Alas, if there's a reason that Winter of Frozen Dreams doesn't quite have the juice to sustain itself, other than its obtuse title, it's the structure of the story itself.  The first misstep is that the script calls for giving away that Barbara Hoffman is convicted of murder in the very first scene.  Granted, the film is based on a true story that caught a Wisconsin newspaper headline or two in its day, so the thought behind this move might have been that those watching this film might already know the outcome. On the other hand, we're talking about a case that's over three decades old, far overshadowed by more lurid and grisly murders over the years that make Hoffman's crimes seem like small potatoes. 

Once we establish the guilt of the main character, the story flashes back to how this event came to be.  In such a case, there seems to be only two reasons for flashing back once the "end" is given.  One is to set up enough ambiguity to make us wonder if in fact Barbara Hoffman is guilty of murder, or if she has been set up.  We're never shown how Barbara's husband dies, only that he has been killed, and how a seemingly distraught Barbara tries to cover it up, with the assistance of hapless Jerry, because she thinks that the cops won't believe her. Certainly, there is a little ambiguity, at least for a short time, but it doesn't take long before it becomes clear that Barbara's actions can only suggest that she is, indeed, a murderer.

The second hook that might keep viewers reeled in is whether or not Barbara, in true femme fatale fashion, will scheme a way to get rid of Jerry, thereby bumping off the only witness with enough circumstantial evidence in testimony to put her away.  Even this angle is unconvincing, as we already know that Barbara is found guilty.  The question therefore remains whether Jerry lives to see it, or he doesn't.  Though sympathetically portrayed, we don't really empathize with Jerry enough to really care one way or another, as he blindly believes everything Barbara tells him, to the point where it appears that if Barbara were to kill him, he would only have himself to blame.  He's the lamb leading himself to his own slaughter.

Winter of Frozen Dreams never really lost my interest while watching it, but that's only because I had been spotting the film the benefit of the possibility of twists and turns that never develop and the potential of an overriding theme that doesn't manifest itself.  As the credits start to roll, it's disappointing to note that 90 minutes were spent watching a mystery in which we know who gets murdered and by whom, and we also become of aware of the motives shortly thereafter.  Decent acting and colorful characters can only go so far.  Thrillers and mysteries are plot-driven vehicles, and given the jettisoning of most of the suspenseful elements early, I just can't recommend it as a piece of entertainment.  Reportedly, the book sets up its ambiguity in a much more beguiling fashion, so perhaps that might be worth a look instead to see this material done right.

 Qwipster's rating:

©2009 Vince Leo