I read Winter of Frozen Dreams, Madison resident Karl Harter's book on how local prostitute Barbara Hoffman allegedly murdered two sad sacks for their life insurance money, soon after it was published in 1990. I was stunned by the eloquence of the writing and depth of the research. When I interviewed Harter for an article about his book, so many of my questions began with "How did you know...?" that I shortened it in my notes to an acronym: "HDYK..."
The long-awaited film version, which played to a packed house at the Wisconsin Film Festival, comes nowhere near matching Harter's book in either drama or insight. The only thing both have in common is a certain seediness.
Keith Carradine's portrayal of Madison Police Det. Chuck Lulling is nearly indistinguishable from his turn as Wild Bill Hickok in HBO's Deadwood - sullen and self-consciously cool. Thora Birch (American Beauty) as Hoffman - a promising UW biochemistry student who spoke six languages - is so enigmatic she lacks even a personality; she seems as incapable of calculation as she is of caring. Dean Winters (Oz, 30 Rock) as Hoffman's malevolent pimp Ken Curtis (a pseudonym for a guy who's still around town and who might breaka my face if I blowa his cover) is leaden and uninteresting. Only Brendan Sexton III and Leo Fitzpatrick give standout performances as the sad sacks, the first so pathetic as to inspire pity, the second so creepy as to deserve his violent end.
Winter of Frozen Dreams has a grainy look, paired with the staccato tough-guy dialogue of TV cop shows. "You're going to solve this case and go out on a high note," a colleague tells Lulling, who's about to retire. Lulling replies: "The only high note I'm going to hear is you getting kicked in the balls." Yeah, real cops talk like that - not!
There are other disappointments. The role of then-Dane County District Attorney Jim Doyle is reduced to a cameo. Hoffman's trial is omitted altogether, save for the verdict and her unconvincing protestation of innocence. And, bizarrely, the film never mentions that the true story it's based on happened in Madison. But maybe we should be grateful for that.