As a black comedy, The Ice Harvest has its heart in the right place — off on vacation in some other movie. Unlike the hedged-bet cynicism found in Just Friends (for people who want to feel cool without the guilt), this is one nasty little film.
I happened to be in the position of seeing a family of seven storm out of a theater in high dudgeon on Thanksgiving night, claiming that this vile film had ruined their holiday and demanding to see a manager. Apart from wondering just what these folks thought they were doing taking a family to an R-rated neo-noir black comedy for a holiday treat, I have to give the movie itself some props for having such an impact. Assuming for the moment that these aren’t just people who go through life demanding to see a manager (we all know a few), any movie that can produce such a strong reaction is probably doing something right.
My own problem with The Ice Harvest is that it doesn’t do enough right, and while it would be easy to blame this on a directorial lightweight like Harold Ramis, the problem lies more with the script by Richard Russo and Robert Benton (Twilight). The film feels too much like Coen Brothers Lite — and it’s too busy nailing down the cynicism to worry too much about the quirkiness that tends to make the Coens’ work palatable. Granted, the Coens could have overcome some of this with sheer cinematic chutzpah.
Ramis, on the other hand, does the script in a more straightforward manner, crafting a garish holiday nightmare that’s ultimately too depressing to be really funny. At least the Christmas setting is actually central to the film (again, unlike Just Friends), which takes deadly aim on the season’s manufactured jollity and forced — here to the point of desperation — good will. Despite the colored lights and giant snowmen and candy canes, this is a movie primarily set in a couple of strip joints and a brothel (with time out for a bar and a stifling family dinner).
John Cusack stars as Charlie Arglist — the closest (and it’s not very close) the film gets to a likable character. Charlie’s the lawyer for Wichita gangster Bill Guerrard (Randy Quaid), and he’s figured out a way to defraud his boss out of a couple million dollars with the assistance of — and encouragement from — local pornographer Vic Cavanaugh (Billy Bob Thornton). But can they get away with it? It looks pretty dicey since a mob strongman, Roy Gelles (Mike Starr, Ed Wood), is asking around if anyone has seen them.
Vic tries to convince Charlie to just be cool, but Charlie’s not very good at being cool; even his attempts at this only serve to draw attention to him, and telegraph the fact that he’s planning on leaving town. Actually, Charlie’s dead right about why Gelles is looking for them, which has nothing to do with seasonal greetings; this results in the movie’s one truly funny — pitch-black funny — extended sequence. From the moment Charlie discovers Vic’s much-detested wife kneeling in front of the Christmas tree, dripping blood onto the presents from the bullet-hole in her head (seems Gelles thought that threatening to off Mrs. Cavanaugh would elicit a confession on the location of the money), the movie takes nasty flight. At least it does so for as long as it deals with what to do with an armed hit man locked in a trunk and a probably duplicitous partner.
But that’s pretty much where the flying ends, as the film bogs down in side issues and Charlie’s fixation on strip-joint owner Renata (Connie Nielsen) and tying up the plot. Things that are apparently supposed to be surprises simply aren’t — at least not to anyone who knows the world of noir and femmes fatales — and the movie feels like its slogging through to a climax that both it and we have stopped caring about.
Ultimately, The Ice Harvest fails, yes, but I can’t say I didn’t enjoy parts of its trip to nowhere nonetheless. Rated R for violence, language and sexuality/nudity.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke