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The Ice Harvest

There's something wonderfully stripped-down about The Ice Harvest (2005), right from the opening scenes. Adapted from a novel by Scott Phillips, the film kicks off immediately after mob lawyer Charlie (John Cusack) and his evil mentor Vic (Billy Bob Thornton) have committed "the perfect crime" — stealing $2,147,000 in cash from Charlie's boss (Randy Quaid), the hulking mobster who controls Wichita, Kansas. We never learn how the crime was done. We never learn Charlie and Vic's specific plans for what they're going to do after they skip town the next morning. No, director Harold Ramis, working from an extra-lean script by Richard Russo and Robert Benton, is far more interested in a certain nihilist psychology than he is in logistics. And so the movie simply follows Charlie through his last night in Wichita — as he drinks, drives, slips on the ice, flirts with a strip-club owner (Connie Nielsen), hangs out with the drunk pal who stole his wife (Oliver Platt), avoids a mob enforcer (Mike Starr), and frets that the increasingly unhinged Vic might be double-crossing him. Harold Ramis, who's already mastered the institutional comedy (Caddyshack), the horror comedy (Ghostbusters) and the spiritual comedy (Groundhog Day) over the course of his 30-year career, has never directed anything quite like The Ice Harvest. While the movie certainly contains its share of laughs — particularly from Thornton, who can go from deadpan to off-his-rocker in a blink — this isn't a crime comedy, exactly. It's first and foremost a slightly absurd, minimalist noir, in the ZIP-code of Blood Simple or Fargo, with occasional jabs of comedy that really look like they hurt. The movie's visual style ranges from stark white to neon blue to shockingly grimy, with cinematographer Alar Kivilo taking some extremely unpleasant pictures of the strip clubs Charlie frequents during his one-night odyssey of double-crosses. (The movie's opening credits, in which freezing rain slowly defiles an outdoor Nativity scene, set the cynical tone.) Cusack is fantastic as Charlie, in ways that aren't always obvious. He's never looked more lumpen than he does here, playing a man whose most self-destructive act — stealing from his murderous boss — spurs him to survey of the ruin of his life. It's a subtle performance, with the actor spending much of the time deferring to his co-stars; he's hilariously timid as he sneaks through an empty bar to confront the terrifying, red-faced Quaid, who absolutely kills in his one scene, or as he's being twisted into sexual knots by Nielsen, who really wears that Veronica Lake hairdo. Cusack also takes a gracious back seat to Platt, whose broad performance as a self-loathing gin-sot is so over-the-top it shouldn't work, and yet somehow works beautifully. If The Ice Harvest has one problem, it's simply this: It's so muted at times, it actually suffers from this kind of hard-to-pinpoint, low-energy vibe. The film doesn't quite crackle like the best noir, and it's not as sharp as maybe it could be. But it's still a surprisingly confident departure for Ramis — and, following Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, it's the year's second-greatest neo-noir. Universal's DVD release of The Ice Harvest features a solid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Director Harold Ramis offers a commentary track, while other features include two alternate endings, an outtake, the featurettes "Cracking the Story" with author Scott Phillips and screenwriters Robert Benton and Richard Russo (17 min.) and "Beneath the Harvest" with principal cast and crew (13 min.), "Ice Cracking: Analysis of a Scene" (13 min.), and an outtake with Billy Bob Thornton as somebody who does not appear in this movie. Keep-case.
Mike Russell



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