Hidden Gems: The Ice Harvest
By Kim Hollis
February 27, 2006
In November of 2005, The Ice Harvest barely made a blip on the radar. It opened to a paltry $5 million before finishing its box office run with only $8.8 million in the kitty. If you missed it (and you probably did), it's a shame, because the film is darkly entertaining and intelligent. Fortunately, The Ice Harvest is getting a fantastic DVD treatment, which will hopefully help it to find a new audience.
Based on a book by Scott Phillips, the movie focuses on a single 24-hour period in the life of mob lawyer Charlie Arglist (John Cusack). He and small-time criminal Vic Cavanaugh (Billy Bob Thornton) have double-crossed their boss and are getting out of town (in this case, Kansas City) with $2 million. Naturally, nothing goes quite according to plan, which results in a thoroughly eventful evening rife with mayhem and madness. Though they're making every effort to wrap up loose ends and head to the airport, and ice storm blows through, leaving roads treacherous. Charlie traverses his usual haunts (bars and strip clubs) and runs into a variety of complications, from whiny strippers to conniving femme fatales to a drunken friend who is way out of control.
The first and most important thing any viewer going in to watch The Ice Harvest should know is that the film is the very definition of black comedy. There is nothing lighthearted about it at all. But frankly, that's just fine by me, because this sort of humor is the stuff John Cusack is made of. Sure, lots of people view him as a romantic lead thanks to his everlasting association with Lloyd Dobler, but it is in films such as The Grifters and Grosse Pointe Blank where his stellar comic timing is given its best avenue. The Ice Harvest slots nicely alongside those earlier movies.
And while The Ice Harvest is truly Cusack's film, the movie also strongly benefits from some outstanding supporting performances. Thornton is vile and nasty as the aforementioned Vic. He's a real son of a bitch whose real motives have only his own interests at heart. He has a number of very finny moments in the film, which might have reminded him a little bit of A Simple Plan when he signed on.
As for other great cast members, Oliver Platt is hilarious as Charlie's drunken friend, a man who is now married to Charlie's ex-wife. Connie Nielsen is incredibly striking as Renata, the femme fatale who is trying to lure Charlie into some sort of plan - though it's never quite clear whether her intentions are good or bad until the film's very end. The angry mob boss is portrayed by Randy Quaid, and he does a good job at playing a nasty piece of work. Finally, Mike Starr (who played Kenny on the television series Ed) has several golden comic moments as a mob tough hired to "talk" to Charlie and Vic.
The movie is ably directed by Harold Ramis, who keeps things moving at a very fast clip and does a fine job of highlighting the bleak surroundings of Charlie's world. He also times the surprise funny moments well, as viewers will find themselves suddenly belting a laugh when least expected. Ramis also provides commentary on the DVD, which should provide some fascinating insight as to the decision-making involved.
I will note that for those who have read the book, the ending is revised rather significantly, but I think it's for the better and more in keeping with the overall tone of the film and the story. For those who are purists, though, the DVD also includes alternate endings that are still slightly different, but are more in line with Phillips' general idea. For my part, since I found the book lacking in some ways (including the finale), I thought that the movie version did an outstanding job of interpreting the story and using the perfect performers to achieve a particular mood. If you like your humor bleak and ferocious, The Ice Harvest will not disappoint.