John Cusack has been cashing checks on the DTV circuit lately. Thrillers like The Numbers Station, The Factory, and Frozen Ground have allowed him to essentially phone it in, which is a sad state of affairs for such a solid actor. One of the last films where Cusack got to fully embody a character and make it clear that nobody else could play the role was Harold Ramis’ comedy neo-noir The Ice Harvest. He plays mob lawyer Charlie Arglist, a patient, calm man whose employment clashes with his inherent kindness. Watching Cusack’ less-is-more approach makes it tough to imagine anyone else in the role. His smirks, collected demeanor, and knowing gaze penetrate the colorful cast of characters he encounters on an icy Christmas Eve in Wichita, Kansas. When the mayhem clears, Arglist still manages to have a sense of decency about him. The Ice Harvest is a fine example of neo-noir in the thematic tradition of a man way in over his head.
Charlie is having a hectic Christmas Eve. He has to visit his former in-laws (who hate him), pick up toys for his son and daughter, help his drunken friend who’s bent on self-destruction, and keep his cool after skimming a cool $2.2 million from his boss, notorious gangster Bill Guerrard (Randy Quaid). His associate Vic (Billy Bob Thornton) thinks it’s best to just sit tight in Wichita for the night, not drawing any attention to themselves as they wait out the ice storm turning the streets into a skating rink. But Charlie’s anxious. One of Guerrard’s goons is in town looking for them. Not a good sign for someone with a $2 million secret.
Alongside his role as a mob lawyer, Charlie also runs a nudie bar managed by sultry Renata (Connie Nielsen), who encourages Charlie’s attraction to her with suggestive metaphors and red, red lips. Rather than soothe his mind, she, like everyone else in town, only heightens his anxiety. Charlie has a feeling Vic can’t be trusted. His drunk friend Pete (Oliver Platt) is a growing problem amidst the downpour of unease and impending doom. How can so much garbage happen in one night?
The narrative plays out in darkly humorous manner, with moments of violence connecting the characters and story marks. Ramis manages to find a really nice balance between pitch black humor, endearing sentiments, and ghastly, even brutal acts of force. It all works in concert to create a thick, palpable atmosphere of comedy and dread. The most memorable scene that juggles humor and violence is one in which the mobster looking for Charlie is locked in a trunk by Vic. Despite being shot and dragged to his doom inside a trunk, the hood still has the cajones to shout threats at Vic and attempts to sway Charlie to see his side of the story. All the while, Charlie and Vic have a tough time transporting this big, boxed bastard. Their exasperation and the whole scenario in general is a riot.
Through it all, Charlie remains marginally calm and patient as he’s sucked into more problems than his own. I mean, this is a guy who’s even cool with his good friend Pete marrying his ex-wife. Rather than feel jealousy, Charlie only feels sorry for the drunk slob. It’s his deeply rooted sincerity and kindness that makes the character and The Ice Harvest as a whole work. Without that, it would be 90 minutes of jerks shooting and swindling each other.
The Ice Harvest is a wickedly fun thriller wrapped in a heartfelt character study. Like all great noir anti-heroes, Charlie has a impossible decisions to make by the end of the film – one’s that may leave him even more broke than when he started, but that transform him into a wiser man. Then again, maybe Charlie isn’t the type of guy to learn from his mistakes. The look on his face in the end says “anything is possible.” Maybe he drove to the next town and ripped someone else off. I like to think not, but some guys never learn.
The Ice Harvest is available now on Netflix streaming. Hopefully it’ll still be available closer to Christmas because it’ll make a great alternative to typical holiday fare.