Just when you're sick to death of all the flimsy family comedies, the toothless PG-13 thrillers, and the insipid fart marathons created exclusively for teenage consumption, along comes a dark, devious, and wonderfully cynical little heist flick that re-energizes your movie-love batteries and gives you something to talk about.
Last November gave me one of those movies; It was called The Ice Harvest, and it came courtesy of director Harold Ramis, screenwriters Robert Benton & Richard Russo, and actors John Cusack, Billy Bob Thornton, and Oliver Platt.
The flick made less than $4 million during its opening weekend and promptly vanished without a trace, so as to make room for the next fart marathon and toothless PG-13 thriller.
Frankly I'm astonished that a movie like this even made it through the production machine and wound up receiving a 1,500 theater release. (I mean that as a compliment to the film.)
A palpably miserable and world-weary affair, The Ice Harvest tells the story of a burnt-out Kansas lawyer who unwisely decides to make off with two million of his boss' dollars. Along with his grumpy partner Vic, Charlie hopes to coast through one more wintry night in Wichita while avoiding the attention of his boss' henchmen, wooing the local femme fatale, contending with a drunk old buddy and an estranged family unit, and tiptoeing through a massive ice storm that's blanketed the area.
Basically, The Ice Harvest would make a great double feature with Martin Scorsese's brilliant "all in one night" nightmare known as After Hours. Both films are laden with darkly bizarre characters, humor that wavers between goofy and grim, and a few surprisingly intense plot contortions that you probably won't see coming. The Ice Harvest has the soul of a cynical old noir story mixed with a few small glimmers of hope that somehow manage to peek through the snow-caked streets.
Plus it's got John Cusack, arguably one of my generation's most adored, yet oddly underappreciated, leading men. The fact that Charlie Arglist is played by John Cusack sets The Ice Harvest off on the right foot. With another actor it might take 40 minutes of running time before we understand how we're supposed to feel about this guy -- but with Cusack in the role, we know the score from frame one: He's a devious little bugger, sure, but we'll pull for this character because, hey, it's John Cusack.
As Charlie's duplicitous crime-partner Vic, Billy Bob Thornton is, of course, a profane and intense presence. We're not sure how much we can trust Vic, and Thornton plays it perfectly. Oliver Platt is on hand as a drunk who, at first, seems like little more than "the comic relief," but as The Ice Harvest rolls on, his character becomes the indispensable heart and soul of the movie. On top of all this you can toss some winning contributions from Connie Nielsen as a two-faced hottie and Randy Quaid as a bombastic crime boss, a screenplay with a devilishly dour disposition, and more than a few unexpected twists...
Tightly paced, consistently efficient, and completely, darkly entertaining throughout, The Ice Harvest is one of 2005's most annoyingly overlooked flicks, and it's a neo-noir heist comedy that I plan to revisit several times over the next few years. Maybe it's just that I've been so starved for a "grown-up" comedy that I'm affording The Ice Harvest a bit more affection than it deserves ... but I love nothing more than discovering a flick that got unfairly shafted during its theatrical release -- and then helping to spread the word to my fellow film geeks.
Video: It's an anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer that boasts a pretty excellent picture quality. The Ice Harvest exhibits a palette consisting of slick sidewalks, non-stop torrents of rain, and the neon hues of sleazy bars, and the mood of the flick slides off the screen in fine form.
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 in English and French, with optional subtitles in English, French, or Spanish.
Cracking the Story is a 17-minute sit-down with novelist Scott Phillips and screenwriters Robert Benton and Richard Russo. The writers discuss how the novel was optioned for a feature film treatment, the alterations that were made during the process, and their general opinions on how the flick turned out. Considering that authors and screenwriters are generally ignored once a movie begins production, I found this piece pretty darn fascinating ... and now I really have to track down Phillips' book.
Beneath the Harvest is a fairly standard 13-minute behind-the-scenes interview-fest that, happily, is free of the fake love and non-stop self-adoration normally found in pieces like these. Cusack, Thornton, Platt, Ramis, and several other filmmakers chime in with their thoughts.
Ice Cracking: Analysis of a Scene is a 6-minute breakdown of the flick's central scene, which involves a frozen lake, a broken pier, a man in a trunk, a few double-crosses, and a bullet.
Also included are a pair of alternate endings, one hilarious outtake in which Billy Bob breaks into his Sling Blade character, and a feature-length audio commentary with director Harold Ramis. The filmmaker could have probably used some support from a few of the actors, producers, or screenwriters, but he has no problem filling a 90-minute commentary with all sorts of interesting tidbits.
I love this movie, period. It speaks to my sense of 90% cynicism / 10% hope, and it's jammed full of funny performances, dark divergences, and a low-key air of existential angst that you simply don't see in many multiplex movies. We'll never get a sequel to The Ice Harvest or a 2-disc Special Edition, and it'll probably be forgotten by 85% of the movie fans out there, but it worked for me just perfectly, and I'm quite content with giving it our Highly Recommended designation. This flick might not be "for everyone," but then again most of the really awful movies are made "for everyone."