DVD Review – ‘The Ice Harvest’

     February 25, 2006

Only a filmmaker with the ingratiating instincts of Harold Ramis could make a noir as pleasurably nasty as The Ice Harvest, in which fingers are severed, feet are stabbed and heads blown clean off to offhandedly comedic effect. Ramis isn’t mean enough to delight in the grisliness of Scott Phillips novel, adapted by the legendary screenwriting team of Robert Benton and Richard Russo, so he just shoots it all in his typically understated manner, preferring matter-of-factness to wallowing in the gore, and the result is a lean eighty-nine minute existential musing that will lend itself to repeat viewings, and, just maybe, the TNT-enabled omnipresence of the director’s Groundhog Day.

Of course, audiences will have to prove a little more willing to stomach this Beckettian tale of a first-time thief forced to sit on a very hot $2 million in the not-big-enough berg of Wichita, Kansas as freezing rain renders impassable every escape route. Both helping and hurting matters is the casting of John Cusack, who’s so likable that one doesn’t want to see him meet the inevitable bad end the genre dictates he’s got coming. It’s painful enough to regard the almost forty-year-old Cusack nowadays his once indefatigable demeanor has grown weary with the onset of middle age, those hopeful eyes now drowning in sadness. But that’s why he’s perfectly suited to the role of Charlie Arglist, a morally compromised “mob lawyer” who haunts low-grade area strip joints off the clock to avoid confronting his multiple professional and personal debacles. It’s that Cusack, Lloyd Dobler himself, is perfect for roles like this that audiences need to overcome unfortunately, as the current state of the country makes clear, most people would rather swallow spoon-fed lies than work down the bitter pill of failure.

That’s where Ramis comes in. After a pre-credit sequence setting up the vague parameters of the heist, which Charlie has successfully pulled off with the even sleazier Vic Cavanaugh (Billy Bob Thornton), the film wades into the dingy kind of strip club where a stripper with a black-eye will still fetch a garter-ful of one dollar bills. That’s where Charlie heads to celebrate his ill-gotten triumph in full view of the club’s smolderingly sexy manager, Renata (Connie Nielsen), whom Charlie would like to add to his largesse on his way out of town. She seems receptive (anything’s better than Wichita in this film), but no one’s going anywhere until the freezing rain thaws, which becomes a real problem when local mob muscle, Roy Gelles, starts canvassing the topless bars for Charlie and Vic’s whereabouts. Charlie warns Vic, who’s adamant that they play it cool and not be seen together in advance of their getaway, which is easy enough for Vic since he’ll be keeping a low profile in a nice, warm house in the suburbs. Charlie, on the other hand, has no choice but to bounce back and forth between two strip clubs, and, in one highly entertaining tangent, tend to his plastered best friend Pete (Oliver Platt), who’s currently married to Charlie’s philandering ex-wife and ineptly playing father to his all-but-abandoned children.

That’s an original twist that wasn’t in Phillips’s plenty inventive novel, and it’s a brilliant addition for the way it isn’t used as conflict but as a source of endearment between the two men. When Pete, in a supreme state of inebriation, reveals to Charlie for the first time that he was fucking his wife in the last year of their marriage, Charlie’s isn’t angry instead, he wonders, not out of meanness but for Pete’s sake, who she’s fucking now. This sets up a disastrous Christmas Eve dinner with Charlie’s ex-family that he unadvisedly pops in on, which Ramis and the writers use to add another layer of self-loathing to Charlie’s life.

It’s Charlie’s constant awareness of how spectacularly he’s dead-ended that keeps him sympathetic – that and Cusack, who continues to be one of the most soulful movie stars working (not nearly enough) today. The Ice Harvest is most readily compared to Fargo and A Simple Plan as a heist-gone-incompetently-bad film, but this is no moral quandary. It’s a crisis of being. And being is something that’s become a great burden for Charlie Arglist, just as it has for many American males who’ve reached their life’s ceiling way too soon. Charlie’s reaction was to bottom out – i.e. to retreat from his personal responsibilities, which worked in its own pathetic way until the day he drunkenly shared his desperation with Vic, though it’s Pete who sounds his dilemma most acutely. “In this country, all that’s left for men is money and pussy.” So, unhappy with what money he has and what kind of pussy he’s getting, Charlie decides to stockpile both so as to possibly alleviate to some extent the misery of his common life. That is, of course, folly, but that’s the only way most men know how to fill the emptiness of their existence anymore.

This is ponderous material, but, as he did with the equally weighty Groundhog Day, Ramis views it all with great amusement. Aside from an unconvincing denouement – both alternate endings available on the DVD, particularly the second one, work much better in theory – and a too-telegraphed climactic twist, The Ice Harvest is a sure-foooted, intellectually engaging human comedy that demands reassessing (or simply assessing, since most critics either missed the point or ignored the film entirely), in particular for Cusack, who’s somehow as beloved as he is unappreciated. No wonder the guy looks a wreck.

Considering the way it was unceremoniously dumped into theaters, the DVD boast some surprisingly well-selected extras, including a solid (if not terribly well-produced) interview with Phillips, Benton and Russo, the aforementioned alternative endings, an EPK behind-the-scenes segment, an enjoyable commentary track from the always droll Ramis and a very funny outtake featuring Thornton playing Vic as Karl Childers from Sling Blade. It goes without saying that picture and sound are fine.

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