The Ice Harvest
December 12, 2005
The Ice Harvest (2005) is a pitch black comedy set in Wichita, Kansas on Christmas Eve. Charlie (Cusack) is a mob lawyer who has stolen $2 million of his boss’ (Quaid) money with the help of Vic (Thornton), a local pornographer. Charlie has a thing for a Renata (Nielsen), the tough talking femme fatale of this neo noir. She even has a sultry, seductive voice and beguiling looks to back it up.
Charlie gets paranoid and twitchy as the enormity of what he’s done begins to sink in with Vic being the unusually calm, voice of reason. Charlie spots local hitman Roy Gelles (Starr) casing every low-life bar and strip club, looking for him and Vic which only makes Charlie even more nervous. To make matters worse, it is freezing rain outside and the roads are slick with ice.
Right from the opening shot director Harold Ramis establishes the icy coldness of the film’s wintery, mid-western setting. It’s a shot of John Cusack huddled in a long, black coat, bracing himself against a chilly wind in such a way that you can almost feel the cold, it is that tangible. The opening credits play over a montage of establishing shots that show off the geography of the city through a gun metal blue filter. Ramis knows how to create the right atmosphere as Charlie goes from one murky, seedy bar to the next.
Cusack does a good job of portraying a guy trying desperately to keep it together while his night gets weirder and more complicated as he tries to keep his scheme together. He and Billy Bob Thornton are on familiar turf here with this black comedy – a genre they are well-acquainted with (Cusack with films like Grosse Pointe Blank and Thornton with Bad Santa). The usually reliable Oliver Platt spends most of the movie chewing up the scenery as he plays his character at a near hysterical level for most of his screen time. At times, it is distracting and jarring.
The Ice Harvest is done in the same tradition as other anti-Christmas movies like The Ref (1994) and the aforementioned Bad Santa (2003) but perhaps its closest cinematic cousin is Fargo in the way the violence is depicted: surprisingly awkward, bloody and brutal. Ramis refreshingly moves away from predictable fare like Analyze This (1999) and Analyze That (2002) with this off-kilter crime comedy. It’s a movie that doesn’t follow the usual beats. For example, the actual crime takes place before the film even starts. Charlie and Vic are supposed to be partners in crime and yet we rarely see them together until 50 minutes into the movie. Ramis also juxtaposes romantic sentiments with violent acts, like two sweet kids (one of whom is a stripper) falling in love while the girl’s ex-boyfriend is getting his fingers broken in the background of the same scene.
Ramis constantly subverts our expectations at every turn. The fun of this kind of movie is trying to anticipate the various plot twists and the surprises as characters reveal their true nature. One thing that is true about neo noirs, they rarely end well and Charlie is going to have to navigate very dangerous waters if he’s going to survive the night. The Ice Harvest follows an unpredictable trajectory with Charlie as the only constant. This is a pleasantly surprising film with a very dark sense of humour, which probably explains why it failed to perform at the box office last year. It is a hard film to market but worth checking out for those who like offbeat fare.
There are two alternate endings, both in which things don’t turn out so well for Charlie. The first one is much more haunting while the other reunites Charlie, Vic and Renata and is not as strong.
“Outtake with Billy Bob Thornton” is an amusing take on a scene with Cusack where Thornton reprises his Carl character from Sling Blade (1996) much to everyone’s amusement.
“Cracking the Story” features a conversation between screenwriters Richard Russo and Robert Benton and author Scott Phillips. They talk about Phillips’ book which Benton and Russo adapted. Benton praises the book’s rich characters and for being quite cinematic in nature. It’s a spirited, informative and entertaining discussion.
“Beneath the Harvest” is a standard if not informative making of featurette that mixes cast and crew soundbites with clips from the movie. Ramis was attracted to the film’s “grim, Existential realities” with everyone involved speaks quite eloquently about the movie. There is also some decent, on-location footage including shooting a scene on a very cold, rainy night.
“Ice Cracking: Analysis of a Scene” examines the icy lake scene – the centerpiece of the movie. It shows how the filmmakers created a lake, the ice in it and so on. This was done so that they would have complete control over the surroundings and could perform all the stunts safely.
Finally, there is an audio commentary with director Ramis. He points out all the Chicago area locations that double for Wichita. He speaks highly of the cast, in particular Cusack and Nielsen and the long conversations they had about the themes of the movie. The director points out the supporting cast that he recruited from the Second City comedy troupe. He does occasionally delve into some character motivations and the film’s themes. This is an okay track but Ramis could have used another participant to fill in some of the lulls.