The Ice Harvest Movie Review
With a heart as black as exhaust-stained slush, The Ice Harvest is based on a novel by that jolliest of writers, Scott Phillips (A Simple Plan). Taking place over one long, frozen and grimy Christmas Eve in Wichita, it all starts with Charlie Arglist (John Cusack), a lawyer for the local crime syndicate, handing off a bag to his cohort, Vic Cavanaugh (Billy Bob Thornton), the bag containing over $2 million they stole from the Kansas City boss, Bill Guerrard (Randy Quaid). Vic hides the money and he and Arglist split up for the night, aiming to get the hell out of town in the morning. Being a noir patsy, Arglist proceeds to drink, draw far too much attention to himself, flirt with the local fatale (Connie Nielsen, dead wrong for the job at hand), and get more and more suspicious about Vic's motives. Paranoia ensues when one of Guerrard's gunsels starts poking around the seedy joints that Arglist has been hanging out in.
Anybody with even a passing familiarity with crime fiction can see what's coming about a mile down the icy road before Arglist, so it's a good thing that the screenplay gives Cusack plenty to stay busy with until the hammer comes down. Richard Russo and Robert Benton's writing provides plenty of nice, dry moments for Cusack and Thornton to hide the fact that this is all just waiting, a fait accompli. Although the film has a surprising - for Ramis - lack of hijinks and escapades (though a subplot with Oliver Platt as Arglist's drunk boor of a friend provides slapstick relief), it does share with Groundhog Day a certain world-weariness that elevates the occasional mundane goings-on. All the characters seem frozen in their own bored despair - this is hardly the glamorous criminal life. The recently divorced and fairly clueless Arglist wants to escape, but even he knows that on the off-chance he and Vic get out alive with the money, there's little hope of a bright new life waiting for either of them, just more of the same in a different location.
If The Ice Harvest had continued playing things close to the vest in this downbeat manner, it might have pulled off this tricky balancing act of hopelessness and black ice humor. Thornton and Cusack are a perfect match of witlessness and malice, the two could star in an adaptation of just about any Jim Thompson noir out there (Cusack's last try, in The Grifters, didn't quite cut it), but we're left with far too little of them and too much of Arglist blundering about the frozen streets, digging himself into deeper holes wherever he goes. Additionally, the delicately crafted deadpan noir mood goes seriously awry during the conclusion, as Ramis starts to force the jokes instead of letting them come naturally. It's an unfortunate development, as until the final stretch, this is a wonderfully nasty film, the thimbleful of arsenic in the Christmas punch that Thornton's overpraised Bad Santa was supposed to be.
Whatever its failings, The Ice Harvest remains a worthy addition to the holiday season, a smart and angst-ridden piece of crime existentialism that loses only its nerve, never its brain.