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The Ice Harvest (A Movie Review)

Updated: Oct 29, 2021

The Ice Harvest


Starring John Cusack, Billy Bob Thornton, Connie Nielsen, Randy Quaid, Oliver Platt, Ned Bellamy, Matthew Campobasso, Diane Francis Fisher, Lori Ann Gerdisch, Shana Goodsell, Megahn Maureen McDonough, Lara Phillips, Michael Stailey, Mike Starr, Jenny Wade and Rick Touhy.

Screenplay by Richard Russo and Robert Benton.

Directed by Harold Ramis.

Distributed by Focus Features.  88 minutes.  Rated R.

If you go into The Ice Harvest expecting a kind of black comedy about Christmas, you are in for a shock.  The levity suggested by the jovial coming attractions trailer and the promise that it is directed by Harold Ramis of Groundhog Day and Ghostbusters fame is a bit of a mirage.  It’s there certainly, in parts this movie is quite funny.  It also has surprisingly dark edge and a much more violent streak than you would first expect.

This is not necessarily a bad thing; The Ice Harvest seems to be somewhat patterned on the Coen Brothers’ Fargo, about corruption, greed and death in the frozen, boring tundra of the American heartland.  Not to suggest that it is as good as Fargo, but at least you have to respect the fact that the movie aims high even if it can’t quite reach it.

Add to that how bad most of the black comedies about Christmas have been in recent years – Surviving Christmas or Christmas with the Kranks (or even Bad Santa, which also stars Billy Bob Thornton; he is giving Tim Allen a run on the holiday flicks) anyone? – and maybe it’s a good idea to go in a different direction here.

The Ice Harvest is more a modern rethink of the film noir genre.  It has greedy, disreputable people crossing and double-crossing each other with little thought of anyone but themselves.  The holiday season is only here for ironic value.  However you do have to give the movie props for the courage of its convictions.  Unlike the other holiday films I just mentioned, The Ice Harvest does not try to shoehorn in an inspirational ending where the characters learn the magic of the season.  At the end of the film, all of the characters seem to look at the merriment with the same disdain they have throughout.

John Cusack plays Charlie Arglist, the most powerful mob lawyer in Wichita, Kansas (as his drunken friend Pete likes to announce regularly to complete strangers.)  Charlie also runs a strip joint (you don’t find many holiday films that take place in not one, but three topless clubs).  As the film begins, Charlie pulls off a scheme that he has hatched with a seedy and borderline-psycho adult bookstore manager named Vic (Thornton).  Together they steal over $2 million dollars from his boss, a ruthless mob guy named Bill Guerrard (Randy Quaid).  Due to an unexpected ice storm, Charlie and Vic must cool their heels in town for several hours before disappearing to the Tropics.

This unexpected delay turns out to weigh upon Charlie even more than he imagined.  He takes a tour of his favorite local joints, trying to act as if everything is normal.  He runs into his sloshed buddy Pete (Oliver Platt), who also happens to be married to Charlie’s ex-wife.  You would think this would make him hate the guy, but honestly Charlie just pities him for taking over his life.  Charlie has a strained visit with his ex, his kids and his former in-laws.  He starts to question whether he can trust Vic.  He panics when he finds out that one of the mob boss’ top muscle guys (Mike Starr) is looking for him.  He also spends some time retrieving an incriminating photo for Renata, a gorgeous manager at one of his favorite strip clubs who Charlie obviously has the hots for.

Renata is a bit of an odd character, not so much a real woman but the epitome of 40s femme fatale cool with Veronica Lake’s hairdo, Betty Grable’s gams and Lauren Bacall’s steely voice.  She is a scheming, manipulative seducer who knows her power over men and uses it to her advantage, but she appears to take no pleasure in it.  Truth is, she shows little emotion at all, unless scorching seduction could be considered an emotion.  In fact, as played with impossibly cool sizzle by the stunning Connie Nielsen (One-Hour Photo), Renata seems like a live-action Jessica Rabbit, except Renata is bad and she’s drawn that way.

Which is one of the interesting things, but ultimately one of the failings of this film.  There are really no characters who are redeemable in most ways.  Charlie is obviously a kind, caring person  beneath it all, however even he is so jaded and does so many bad things that it is hard to find a rooting interest.  And honestly, the most interesting, funniest character is Pete, who is only attached to the crime peripherally.  Now I understand that is one of the tenets of noir, even the heroes are deeply flawed, but that does not necessarily make them more likable.

That isn’t a fatal problem, though.  The movie is involving and fascinating.  Luckily. The Ice Harvest is nicest when it’s being naughty, even if its characters aren’t.  (10/05)

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2005  All rights reserved.  Posted: November 23, 2005.

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