Judge Patrick Bromley once found a teddy bear named Bobo in a bag of ice.
Thick thieves. Thin ice.
Facts of the Case
Nice-guy "mob lawyer" Charlie Arglist (John Cusack, High Fidelity) and his partner, the not-so-nice Vic Cavanaugh (Billy Bob Thornton, A Simple Plan, Primary Colors) have just pulled off a major score for Christmas: they've stolen $2 million and change from Kansas mob boss Bill Guerrard (Randy Quaid, Quick Change). Now, the only thing left to do is figure out who's going to hang on to the money, help out a sexy stripclub owner (Connie Nielsen, Gladiator, Basic) who may be more than she seems, pick up some Christmas presents, take care of drunken friend Pete Van Heuten (Oliver Platt, Lake Placid, successfully stealing the film out from under the cast), and try not to be killed by Guerrard's hit man (Mike Starr, Elvis Has Left the Building). Oh…and get the hell out of Kansas.
Easier said than done.
Good film noir, like good science fiction, is one of those genres that's done too often but seldom done right. It's easy to see the appeal for filmmakers—it allows them to pay tribute to a forgotten era and add a glaze of "art" to what is often otherwise sub-standard material; at the same time, studios are drawn to the promise of advertising lots of sex and violence (this, of course, isn't as true anymore, now that everything has to be released with a PG-13 rating). The elements are built in; the genre is the star. It's like movie-making shorthand.
But, then, there's a movie like The Ice Harvest, which understands that there's more to making film noir than clichés and style. It combines an A-list cast comprised mostly of character actors, magnificent source material, and a gifted comedy director (Harold Ramis, Groundhog Day) working outside of his element; the result is a film that's at once fondly faithful to the genre and refreshingly original—not so much in content as in treatment. This is a darkly funny movie that refuses to compromise. The kind of movie where a guy locks another guy in a trunk, then tells him he's going to put a bullet in both ends because he can't remember which side the guy's head is on. The kind of movie where shooting a guy in the face with birdshot doesn't put him down, only piss him off. The Ice Harvest has the courage to be really nasty.
There's more to the movie than just bullets, babes, and bah-humbug, though. Ramis and his screenwriters, Richard Russo and Robert Benton (adapting from Scott Phillips's novel of the same name) find a layer of existentialism beneath the noir trappings. There's a real sense of the futility of film noir at work—all this greed, all this deception, and where does it get anyone? The "ice" of the title isn't just referring to the weather, after all; this is a story about men who are frozen, whose wheels are spinning beneath them. These men are emasculated, reduced to drinking, screwing, and fighting; without that, they're nothing. It's what Charlie and Vic are raging against, and the reason they pull off their heist. The movie is like Fight Club in that way, except that these guys aren't upfront enough to punch one another in the face—they'd sooner cheat, steal, and kill behind one another's backs. We forget how funny this can all be, and yet how sad. The Ice Harvest doesn't.
John Cusack is exactly the right actor to play Arglist—we like him enough to forgive him for just about anything, and The Ice Harvest finds his hands getting plenty dirty. He's mastered a sideways approach to the material that consistently sneaks up on you, and his edgier, off-kilter sensibilities are just right for this script. I know that Tom Hanks is forever being championed as our everyman—the new Jimmy Stewart—but for some of us, that title belongs to John Cusack. Connie Nielsen, on the other hand, is too generic for the role of Renata; she doesn't properly wreck us—we need to be willing to do anything for her (think Kathleen Turner in Body Heat), and we aren't. Nielsen sounds and (especially) looks the part, but it feels too much like an imitation of femme fatales past. In a movie that brings this kind of freshness to the genre, that's not going to cut it.
The Ice Harvest comes to DVD courtesy of Focus Features as part of their "Spotlight Series" which, due to the number of special features included on the disc, I'm guessing means the same thing as "Special Edition." The film is presented in its original 1.85 widescreen aspect ratio (a full screen version is also available) and looks appropriately pristine, all icy gun-metal blue and slimy neon reds and greens. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track handles the dialogue and effects well, though isn't exactly of reference quality; it lacks the show off-y quality of the best DVD audio tracks (usually action movies), but this isn't a show off-y movie.
The extras included on the disc aren't exactly exhaustive, but do a nice job of highlighting certain aspects of both the production and the finished film. First up is a pair of alternate endings, which are difficult to talk about much without giving anything away. I will say that both are very similar (save for the inclusion of one extra scene), that the first is exactly what you'd expect and that the second works much better—it adds another layer to the existential plight of these characters. However, I'm glad that that neither ending was used; I know that there are many who would disagree with me, but I would argue that in this genre, the actual ending is the riskiest choice.
The remaining extras deal mostly with the movie's production. There's a standard behind-the-scenes featurette that illuminates very little, save for some material about how Harold Ramis insisted that the film be shot in Chicago ("No one knows what Wichita looks like!"). An outtake with Billy Bob Thornton finds a familiar character making an appearance. There's also a fascinating interview with novelist Scott Phillips and screenwriters Richard Russo and Robert Benton, in which they discuss the writing process and the challenges of adapting a book for the screen. Finally, Harold Ramis provides a feature-length commentary track over the movie, in which he gives an overview of the production and discusses a number of his choices. Ramis is always drier and more subdued than I would like on his commentaries, and The Ice Harvest is no exception; still, it's an informative and occasionally amusing talk. The only thing missing from the disc is the movie's original theatrical trailer, which features a cameo appearance from DVD Verdict's own Michael Stailey.
The Ice Harvest is one of my favorite movies of 2005. It's not something that's ever going to attract the masses or make any noise in awards circles, but it's very good at being just what it is: dark, nasty, smart, and funny. At a time when fewer and fewer movies are able to succeed even on their own terms, we've got to recognize and appreciate a modest work of greatness like this. It's a small masterpiece.
As Wichita falls, so falls Wichita Falls.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Focus Features
• Alternate Endings
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