Following Bad Santa by two Noels, The Ice Harvest is a hearty bah-humbug, suggesting that the mean-spirited Christmas flick might become something of an American tradition—along with office parties, seasonal Muzak, and other forms of mass-produced good cheer.
Harold Ramis’s comic noir is a sort of imploded caper in which a pair of Wichita wiseguys (John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton) embezzle 2 million
dollars from the mob and then, thanks to a providential ice storm, are stuck spending Holy Night at the scene of the crime. So ho ho ho, assholes! At least five killings and many an icy pratfall occur against the nightmarish backdrop of giant candy canes, molded plastic gnomes, and tinsel-draped créches.
Funny, tense, and exceedingly well made, The Ice Harvest has it both ways. Cusack, as a crooked lawyer who is actually the least devious character in the movie, and especially Thornton, an old hand at neo-noir, give extremely disciplined performances. As the smooth and lacquered proprietress of the Sweet Cage strip joint, Connie Nielsen projects a parody of seduction worthy of Mae West—you might almost forget that she’s the genre-requisite femme fatale. The Sweet Cage provides the arena for all manner of stunts. Indeed, a good part of the movie is devoted to detailing American bar behavior, and as Cusack’s obnoxiously drunken buddy, Oliver Platt is pleased to stagger under a substantial portion of its narrative weight. Randy Quaid makes a suitably menacing appearance late in the proceedings as Wichita’s dyspeptic capo di tutti capi.
From the cast and location to the attitude and premise, many things in The Ice Harvest are inescapably reminiscent of the Coen brothers. But as a director, Ramis is far less flashy and not nearly as pleased with himself. This is one of the most sustained movies of the year, as classic in its structure as Double Indemnity or No Exit. (The script was co-written by old pros Robert Benton and Richard Russo.)
On his essential new blog, Dave Kehr suggests that The Ice Harvest is the Hollywood movie of the year. There are those who may prefer Duma or Syriana and I’m kind of partial to Corpse Bride, but The Ice Harvest has its own social function. Not just an exemplary genre flick, it serves to remind us that our pagan forebears celebrated the winter solstice with a debauched feast of fools—it returns Christmas to the Saturnalia, however sodden.