“Just as Wichita Falls, so falls Wichita Falls.” That saying pops up several times throughout The Ice Harvest. Mob lawyer Charlie Arglist (John Cusack) doesn’t know what it means, but the statement has a certain incoherent eloquence. Or maybe it just sounds ominous, considering the fact that Charlie has stolen $2 million from his boss. The plan is for him and his partner Vic (Billy Bob Thornton) to get out of Wichita with the money, never to be heard from again. However, their final night in the city (Christmas Eve, no less) is marred by a treacherous ice storm as well as the appearance of a mobster named Roy (Mike Starr) who may be wise to their plan.
Charlie is obviously the more paranoid of the two partners. He makes his way through bars and strip clubs, trying to avoid being seen by Roy. At one of them, he encounters Renata (Connie Nielsen), a vampish, 1940’s noir-type vixen who asks for his help. The mafia boss has in his possession a photo of Renata and a local councilman engaged in sexual activity. She wants it destroyed. (So does the councilman, who approaches Charlie later on.) When Charlie tells her about the $2 million, she even offers to run away with him. The hormone-laden lawyer likes this idea.
Oliver Platt plays Pete Van Heuten, who is newly separated from Charlie’s ex-wife. He’s spending Christmas getting drunk. The two keep crossing paths, and it’s clear that both are struggling to deal with unhappiness, albeit in very different ways. Meanwhile, Vic lays low – at least until he manages to capture Roy and stuff him into a foot locker. What was supposed to be a simple plan quickly turns irreversibly difficult. Getting out of Wichita may not be as easy for the duo as it seems.
A lot of times I complain that a movie starts strongly but becomes unsubstantial. The Ice Harvest is the exact opposite. What’s on the screen during its 88 minutes is all good. What we’re missing is the beginning of this story. The film jumps right into things without ever fully establishing certain key details. For instance, Vic is only ever introduced to us as Charlie’s partner. We’re not told how they met, how they stole the money, or what Vic’s motivations were for helping to steal it in the first place. Similarly, we don’t know much about Charlie’s life before stealing the cash. Did he have a beef with the mob boss, or did he need lots of quick money for something else? These questions need answers, or at least some semblance of an answer. It’s too bad that we don’t get them because The Ice Harvest had the potential to be another Fargo, which also dealt with desperation leading to crime.
Like I said, everything that actually is here works well, considering you’re into dark comedies sprinkled with some unflinching violence. (I am.) The screenplay by novelist Richard Russo (Empire Falls) and director (not of this movie) Robert Benton is full of crosses, double-crosses, and triple-crosses. They throw all kinds of complications at Charlie. Some are quite comical, others downright creepy. The script delivers a nice mix of humor, tension, and seediness, giving it an atmosphere that sets it apart from other recent pictures in the genre.
The performances are great too. John Cusack always excels in darker roles, and he has a lot to work with here. Charlie sees himself slipping down the moral slope, and he responds with resignation. Billy Bob Thornton, Connie Nielsen, and Randy Quaid (as the big mafia boss) all turn in first-rate supporting work. And Oliver Platt provides some big, big laughs, especially in a scene where Pete and Charlie crash Christmas Eve dinner at the home of their mutual in-laws.
The Ice Harvest was directed by Harold Ramis, who also made Groundhog Day and Analyze This. He displays a somewhat surprising talent for dark comedy. Ramis wisely keeps the focus on Charlie’s desperation as his plan spirals out of control. He also makes the violence seem sick and horrible, which brings the character’s dilemma more vividly to life.
I wish the movie had been about 20 minutes longer, with more exposition at the beginning. (Perhaps an expanded director’s cut DVD will rectify this situation.) Even with that flaw, I think this is a really good movie. It will not be for every taste, but it delivers as an example of modern day film noir. Just as Wichita Falls, so falls Charlie Arglist.
( out of four)
The Ice Harvest is rated R for violence, language and sexuality/nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 28 minutes.
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