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Movie Review: The Ice Harvest

The Ice Harvest is filled with unlikeable, lowlife characters who murder, steal, and scam throughout the film, which I enjoyed immensely. By my count, no less than four of the main characters kill someone by the end credits. This is all within a short twelve- to fifteen-hour time frame, too. It’s an unabashedly cynical modern noir that was unfairly dismissed by both critics and audiences when it was released.

The story begins on Christmas Eve as Charlie, a mob lawyer, and Vic, who we are told “sells pornography,” have stolen over $2 million from Charlie’s mobster boss, Bill Guerrard (Randy Quaid in a cameo). The setting is a very icy Wichita, Kansas, and the two men plan to leave town in the early morning never to be seen from again. That’s the plan, but it’s not too difficult to figure out that something will go awry. The overall story is somewhat complicated, but never to the point of confusion and is handled quite nicely by the screenwriters, novelist Richard Russo and filmmaker Robert Benton, as well as the director Harold Ramis.

The cast is superb with John Cusack anchoring the movie as Charlie and Billy Bob Thornton portraying Vic with just the right amount of sleaze and unpredictability. Oliver Platt provides some comic relief as Charlie’s friend, who happens to also be married to his ex-wife. Cusack is the real center and gives the audience a character who you root for by default, but who also balances a fine line between dim bulb and someone who could actually pull off what happens. Connie Nielsen adds a femme fatale element to the story and is always a welcome presence.

There are obvious elements of noir found in The Ice Harvest. The cinematography is appropriately dark and ominous at times considering the morbid nature of what’s happening on screen. As the evening drifts into night at the beginning of the film, the cameraman effectively uses a blue filter to strike the mood. The ice is constant throughout and makes a nice motif for the cold and slippery aspects of almost every character we see. Ice itself is a strange thing, practically invisible at times and always potentially dangerous. This film uses ice to great effect, most notably during the final confrontation between Cusack and Thornton.

When The Ice Harvest opened this past November, I was excited to see it because it looked like something right up my alley. Then I saw the reviews and was put off because they skewed quite negative and seemed to suggest that Ramis had failed to balance the story’s humorous aspects with the obviously dark storyline. With the DVD release, however, I was once again ready to give the film a look and I’m really glad that I did. I can understand why audiences were not enthusiastic about the movie because it’s not a comedy and it’s not a crime/heist picture as the studio advertised it. What it is is a dark and adult film laced with sharp bits of humor and wit that never lets the audience know exactly where it’s going. That kind of film seems to be a rarity nowadays.

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