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Overall Rating

Awesome: 23.19%
Worth A Look44.93%
Average: 17.39%
Pretty Bad: 5.8%
Total Crap: 8.7%

8 reviews, 21 user ratings

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Ice Harvest, The
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by Peter Sobczynski

"For those dreaming of a noir Christmas"
4 stars

If “The Ice Harvest” had been made 50-odd years ago, at the height of the post-war craze for film noir, it probably would have had Dana Andrews, Robert Mitchum and Peter Lorre in front of the camera, Edward Dmytryk behind it and it would have been regarded as a straightforward and modestly effective genre film, the kind that would have made a nice, if non-essential, addition to the next Warner Brothers Film Noir Classics DVD set. Instead, it has been made today with the likes of John Cusack, Billy Bob Thornton and Oliver Platt in the leads and Harold Ramis, the man behind such comedy classics as “Animal House,” “Caddyshack” and “Groundhog Day” at the helm and the result is inevitably a little freakier and funnier than it might have been in other hands. It features all the traditional noir ingredients–smart guys who aren’t as smart as they think, dumb guys who aren’t as dumb as everyone else thinks, guns, blood, double-crosses, crosses and a slinky dame who can throw even the most intricate plans up for grabs just by crossing her legs–but approaches them in an off-kilter manner that will probably make genre purists howl but should provide an evening’s worth of nasty entertainment for those like it when a film decides to mix things up a bit.

Cusack stars as Charlie Arglist, a mousy Wichita lawyer in the employ of the menacing crime boss Bill Guerrard (Randy Quaid). Bored and dissatisfied with his life, Charlie hits upon a plan to steal $2 million from Guerrard with the help of tough-as-nails strip-club manager Vic (Thornton)–it is typical of the film’s idiosyncratic approach that we never see the plan in action as the story kicks off with the two them with the money already in hand. For the plan to work, they need to stick around for a couple more hours and act inconspicuous before leaving town–since it is Christmas Eve, they figure that the theft won’t even be noticed until they have long since departed for a sunnier climate. Unfortunately for Charlie, his “foolproof” plan winds up having as many unexpected flaws as the similar schemes in such films as “The Killing” and “The Asphalt Jungle.” While killing time in one of the local strip joints, Charlie does one or two modest good deeds that immediately arouse suspicion, despite his claims that everyone is supposed to be nice at Christmas. Meanwhile, two additional problems blow into town; a relentless freezing rain that has turned the town into an ice rink and, even more ominously, a fearsome enforcer of Guerrard’s (Mike Starr) who is asking a lot of questions about the whereabouts of Charlie and Vic.

To say any more about the story, based on the novel by Scott Phillips, would be unfair to the various twists and turns of the screenplay. Suffice it to say, Charlie quickly finds himself over his head and soon up to his neck in blood and bodies, all the while yoked to a partner whose intentions may be less honorable than originally imagined. I will say that Guerrard eventually makes his fearsome presence known–he seems more angry about the fact that someone would have the audacity to steal from him than about the theft itself. I will also say that there is, of course, a sexy babe involved as well–a tall drink of water named Renata (Connie Nielsen) who runs the only stip club in town not owned by Guerrard and who seems to be loyal to Charlie but is perhaps willing to throw in with whomever is currently in possession of the money.

As I said, this is a standard genre set-up but the screenwriters, the acclaimed Richard Russo and Robert Benton (who have, between them, worked on the likes of “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Nobody’s Fool,” “Empire Falls” and the vastly underrated noir exploration “Twilight”), have thrown more than enough twists into the material to keep even the most devoted noir students on their toes. The biggest twist comes from the ever-sodden Pete Van Heuten (Oliver Platt), an associate of Charlie’s who seems to turn up no matter where Charlie goes during his long evening. There is no reason why Charlie should want to have anything to do with him–after all, Pete married Charlie’s former wife, with whom he had been having a longtime affair, has a tendency to be less than discreet in public after a few drinks (he likes to introduce Charlie to people by announcing that he is a Mob lawyer) and in a completely empty parking lot, he still chooses the front seat of Charlie’s car to throw up in–but he finds himself strangely protective of Pete, possibly because he appears to be the one person in town who is currently worse off than he is. Another amusing side character is a musclebound bartender (Ned Bellamy) with a soft spot for one of the strippers–when she finds a new sweetheart, he warns him what will happen if he ever gives her a black eye, a proclamation that would seem unnecessary since he still has the blood from the last guy who did so on his hands.

Although Harold Ramis would seem to be an odd person to direct such material, he turns out to be a smart choice. Like comedy, suspense is something that is wholly dependent on timing for it to succeed–one false move and everything can collapse in an instant. Like the Coen Brothers, whose “Blood Simple” and “Fargo” are obvious inspirations here, he does a good job of maintaining a balance between the two tones–the film is very funny at times but there is a serious undercurrent that is always present as well to remind us that for all the fun and games, Charlie has gotten himself into a dangerous situation that he may well not survive. Aiding in this tone is a smart performance by the immensely appealing Cusack, who is able to capture the smart-but-not-that-smart Charlie in an instant while still managing to roll with all the punches–literal and otherwise–that are thrown at him. In a role smaller than the ads suggest, Thornton is also very good and funny as the unapologetically amoral Vic and Connie Nielsen seems to be channeling every dame in noir history as Renata–there is not a single image of her in the film that couldn’t be clipped out and placed on an old pulp novel.

“The Ice Harvest” isn’t a film for everyone–noir fans may not appreciate the humor while those in the mood for a goofy comedy may be put off by the bleak characters and the nasty levels of violence that occasionally crop up. It isn’t even a great film but it is one that is reasonably intelligent and more than reasonably entertaining. In the last few days, I have seen a lot of the highly anticipated holiday films and have been, for the most part, less than impressed. This, on the other hand, is a dark little bon-bon of a film (though one with a decidedly bitter center) that, for all its modest ambitions, works better than most of the other films currently in release.

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originally posted: 11/23/05 16:22:04
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Austin Film Festival For more in the 2005 Austin Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

12/25/17 JD Daynes The perfect Christmas film for anyone who's not feeling Christmas. I love it! 5 stars
2/25/14 Uowxoxqj Hemsley is one of the back of a binary options strategy coincidence to overlook., <a href=" 2 stars
12/20/13 Ken Markson Great film! It's poor showing must be the result of advertizing a comedy - which it's not! 5 stars
9/13/11 Tim Darkly funny and richly involving - too bad it didn't get better reception when released. 4 stars
12/04/08 Shaun Wallner Great Cast!! 4 stars
5/14/08 Matt Even the excellent Billy Bob can't stop this from being soooooo forgettable. 2 stars
5/09/07 David Pollastrini not great, not terrible 3 stars
3/30/07 fools&#9835;gold If you're too careful, you won't laugh, and you'll be bored, and that's why it's great. 4 stars
1/28/07 mets1986 Very underrated..Oliver Platt is fantastic 5 stars
10/18/06 AJ Muller well-done flick, dark laughs, great turns by primo cast 4 stars
7/05/06 Phil M. Aficionado Feel I should like it more because of the actors, but it suffers from genre confusion 3 stars
3/07/06 Monday Morning VERY disappointing work from H.Ramis. Wasn't good comedy, black or otherwise. 2 stars
12/02/05 The Don Johnson 60 minutes suck, 30 minutes are hilarious. Drunken Oliver Platt is extremely funny. 3 stars
11/29/05 soldi its ok but not so good not worth going to it in cinema just rent it when it comes out 3 stars
11/28/05 KingNeutron Lots of good dialogue, and a couple of shockers. 4 stars
11/28/05 Elizabeth S It's bleak, violent and filled with lowlifes . . .but I liked it! 3 stars
11/26/05 khalid30 ok 3 stars
11/25/05 Idiot_for_LMP Cusack as always stellar performance! Go See! 4 stars
11/25/05 baseball-nut I'd suggest John Cusack stick with the serious stuff, he's not a very good comedian! 2 stars
11/07/05 mahgoney ubelivably great 5 stars
10/24/05 Drew Ebanks 'Written by' category should include the novelist Scott Phillips 4 stars
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  23-Nov-2005 (R)
  DVD: 28-Feb-2006

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