Holiday Movie Month: "The Ice Harvest" Review

Photo Credit: Focus Features

Holiday Movie Month: "The Ice Harvest" Review

Rating: R (violence, language, and sexuality/nudity)
Length: 92 minutes
Release Date: November 23, 2005
Directed by: Harold Ramis
Genre: Comedy / Crime / Drama

Heists in movies rarely go smoothly, but it's the complications that make them interesting. Such is definitely the case with "The Ice Harvest," a story of a pair of crooks who decide to rip off a bigger crook for millions of dollars. Nothing seems to go as planned, however, and nobody seems to be throwing straight dice as the story unfolds, leaving the audience wondering who to root for in this elaborate scheme.

On Christmas Eve, mob lawyer Charlie (John Cusack) and pornographer Vic (Billy Bob Thornton) steal $2 million from their boss, mobster Bill Guerrard (Randy Quaid). The original plan calls for them to vanish out of town, but frozen roads leave the pair trapped, and they must split up to avoid the mob boss's search parties. Charlie spends time with strip club owner Renata (Connie Nielsen), an old crush, and later ends up being the designated driver for his drunken best friend Pete (Oliver Platt).

Things take a turn when a mob enforcer appears on their tail, and Charlie reunites with his partner to find Vic's wife dead and the enforcer locked in a trunk. As they drive to a nearby lake to dispose of the bodies, the enforcer begins to work on Charlie's loyalties, suggesting that Vic's plan is to eliminate Charlie and take the money for himself. Charlie finds himself questioning everything he knows, and the story becomes one of double cross after double cross as he simply tries to get out of this debacle alive.

"The Ice Harvest" is based on the Scott Phillips novel of the same name, and director Harold Ramis manages to infuse the noir tale with his trademark sense of humor, adding a touch of black comedy to the film's darkest moments. However, the tone seems to shift sharply at times, with the direction seeming almost indecisive in the film's more brutal moments. Is the audience supposed to laugh at someone's demise or feel sorry for the character? Ultimately, the film attempts to find the same niche the comedy noir masterpiece "Fargo" carved out, but it does so with middling success. The pace is relentless, however, driving the plot on to its inevitable conclusion without the wasted time so many similar films indulge in.

Where the film succeeds brilliantly is in the performances. John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton have shared the screen before, and they clearly have a good friendship and onscreen chemistry to spare. This makes Charlie and Vic instantly believable as partners, and viewers get an unspoken sense of a past between them that saves a lot of onscreen exposition time. Both fall into their roles naturally, and fans will enjoy their performances.

The supporting cast also offers some gems. Connie Nielsen's Renata invokes the best of the '40s femme fatale archetype, making it strikingly believable that Charlie has carried a torch for her for years. Randy Quaid pulls off a menacing performance as the wronged mob boss, managing to be threatening without being overtly comic. Oliver Platt steals the show (as Oliver Platt always does) as Charlie's oldest friend Pete, who spends a good portion of the film drunk in Charlie's car.

Platt and Cusack share a wonderfully engaging subplot when the film reveals that Pete is married to Charlie's ex-wife Sarabeth and living in Charlie's former home, adding another layer of tension between the two characters. Charlie drives Pete to his in-laws' home, where they crash a formal family dinner. Before they go in, Pete reveals that he'd had an affair with Sarabeth while she was still married to Charlie, perhaps in an attempt to make Charlie mad. Charlie only becomes contemplative and replies, "Makes me wonder who she's [cheating with] now." The subsequent scene of hearth and home is a sharp contrast to the sketchy underworld that fills the rest of the film and serves as a wonderful what-if moment for Charlie in the midst of a scheme that threatens to end his life.

As a noir comedy, "The Ice Harvest" will satisfy fans of the genre looking for a thriller with a sense of humor, if a bit of an uneven tone. The plot is intricate, with characters changing loyalties throughout, and perceptive members of the audience might be able to deduce where the story will turn next. Fans of Scott Phillips may not agree with some of Ramis's particular thematic choices in this adaptation, including the film's ending, but "The Ice Harvest" ultimately stands as a serviceable adaptation of the novel.

Rating: 3 out of 5