Charlie Arglist has a strong suspicion that what he’s done will bring him a lot of trouble, but he doesn’t feel his actions are wrong. That’s because Charlie, played by John Cusack in an especially strong performance, stopped caring a long time ago about right and wrong. He’s a crooked mob lawyer and a moral drifter who has lost sight of the shores of honesty. On Christmas Eve in Wichita, Kansas, he and shady business partner Vic Cavanaugh (a brilliantly cast Billy Bob Thornton) have just embezzled more than 2 million dollars from a Kansas City crime boss. They’re set to leave town but an ice storm delays their escape, which leads to all kinds of complications in “The Ice Harvest”, a praiseworthy dark comedy from director Harold Ramis (Caddyshack, Groundhog Day, Analyze This).
Charlie has fallen in love with strip club owner Renata (Danish beauty Connie Nielsen) and allowed himself to believe that she’ll also leave Wichita behind to go live with him in some tropical paradise. Renata is a calculating woman whose velvety voice utters the loaded whispers of a femme fatale, and Charlie can’t help lusting after her. She has a way of tilting her head to use her cascading chestnut locks and raspberry-hued lips as irresistible weapons of seduction.
Ramis opens the movie with shots from a Nativity crib, to the beats of The Little Drummer Boy, but we soon realize this will be no Merry Christmas as we enter film noir territory. Right from the get-go, Charlie looks like he may have bitten off more than he wanted to chew. When Charlie and Vic go their separate ways for part of the evening and it is decided to leave the money under Vic’s care, we can see the subtle hesitation on Charlie’s face and the lingering doubt that pops into his mind. I shall say no more about the plot, crisply adapted by screenwriters Richard Russo and Robert Benton from Scott Phillips’ debut novel. Reading the book I thought it took forever for the story to pick up, but I recognized some rich characters in Charlie and his drinking buddy Pete (Oliver Platt). Platt’s performance is a delirious display of goofy drunkenness and crude behaviour you’ll want to see. The quick joke from a policeman- and the guy’s silly smile at his own line- when he sees the smashed and pitiful Pete being helped by Charlie is also priceless.
The film echoes the too-much-money-will-bring-you-hell storyline of A Simple Plan and Fargo and the disregard for Christmas goodwill of Bad Santa, yet it’s largely original in its character studies on top of having inspired acting. Some of Cusack’s good guy charm carries over from his romantic roles, but he proves once again the great work he can do with heavier fare. Thornton plays a thoroughly despicable man with aplomb while Nielsen (Gladiator, The Devil’s Advocate) hits the right notes as Renata.
The ending is quite different than in the book and represents an intriguing choice, but you can make the case that it validates the attention given to the lead character and the overall tone. Here’s a movie that shoves the holiday spirit aside, choosing to replace carols and celebrations with bitterness and lethal decisions, and the result is a twisted but very well-done take on the powerful pull of the almighty dollar.
Review by Jean-François Tremblay