Coming from someone who would like to think that John Cusack can do no wrong, it means a lot to say that the plot description for his latest venture, “The Ice Harvest,” found me hesitant to see it at best. Presented with the idea of a disturbingly removed film noir set on Christmas Eve and directed by the man who brought us “Animal House” and “Caddyshack,” one cannot help but empathize with my diffidence. With that said, upon viewing, “The Ice Harvest,” left me puzzled at best. I departed the film’s screening poignantly scratching my head and wondering when the hell Randy Quaid got so old and gross looking.
Set in the barren, snow-filled landscape of Wichita, Kan., “The Ice Harvest” takes place over what amounts to about 12 hours of mayhem, bloodshed and misery for nearly all of its characters. Sloughing off just a fraction of his puppy-dog demeanor, Cusack plays the unlikely protagonist of Charlie Arglist – a well-known mob attorney in his rather miniscule community. Charlie, along with his newfound business associate, Vic Cavanaugh (Billy Bob Thornton) have managed to embezzle an upward of $2 million from a local mob boss and must now spend Christmas Eve laying low before quietly fleeing town with their fortune.
Not surprisingly, the evening falls short of peaceful as a nervous Charlie finds himself – and rightfully so – second-guessing his partner in crime and dodging Wichita Mafiosi as he weaves his way in and out of dive bars and seedy strip joints in an attempt to find answers and make a stealthy escape. What ensues in the subsequent hour and a half is both inevitable and expectedly problematic: Charlie is double-crossed, nearly killed (twice) and forced to face the harsh light of reality while soaked in guilt and sleet. Thought-provoking hilarity ensues as he runs into his buddy Pete (Oliver Platt) – who, now unhappily married to Charlie’s ex-wife – spends Christmas Eve on an alcoholic bender like no other. The ever-helpful Charlie is not-so-surprisingly forced to act as the “sober” escort to his friend’s pained drunken hijinks.
Thornton does an impressive job of playing yet another miserably sad excuse for a human being as he goes on a murder spree midway through the film that is as predictable as it is unnerving. Quaid’s role as mob boss Bill Guerrard is brief but rich – a far departure from his portrayal of the dimwitted Cousin Eddie in the “National Lampoon” series. Connie Nielsen takes on a similarly underdeveloped role as a local strip club owner named Renata. She provides a solid portrayal of the mysteriously sultry love interest for Charlie, but has little else to work with beyond a peculiar accent and sexual nonchalance.
In conversation with Cusack, Platt, Nielsen and director Harold Ramis, it becomes a little clearer what “The Ice Harvest” was trying to accomplish.
“I’m not a film student. I never felt we were making a genre film. I’m not interested in doing homages to anything or doing derivative work,” Ramis said when asked about departing from his comedic tendencies to tackle such an odd amalgamation of film noir.
Cusack lobbied for the film in a similar fashion, noting that “The Ice Harvest” provided an ideal canvas for artistic expression and interpretation. With the script only covering about 12 hours of time, the characters are relatively blank slates.
“[With a character like Charlie] you get to fill in the blanks as you go. You get to kind of create a person. It’s kind of fun,” Cusack said.
Platt agreed with his cinematic comrade, saying, “The best combo is when you have a beautifully written script and you get to fill in the blanks.”
The film delves into issues of desperation and distraction that are neither understandable nor truly justified, but it does beg a number of questions about midlife crises and right versus wrong.
“Why someone would end up in a strip club in Wichita Falls on Christmas Eve is a kind of philosophical question,” Cusack chuckled. “I think it’s like, ‘How’d I end up here?’ [It’s like the] sexual bus stop in Purgatory. It’s not where you want to be on Christmas Eve.”
Like so many black comedies before it, “The Ice Harvest” is a doubtful contender for box-office success. Still, it is a story that is unlike any being told, providing a brief glimpse into holiday desperation that redefines Scrooge’s “Bah, humbug!” sentiment. As far as Cusack is concerned, it’s the unnerving characterizations and unforgiving deeds depicted by the film that make “The Ice Harvest” worthy of viewing.
“[Charlie is] definitely a loser. I don’t know about loveable…. I don’t know if you’d have a really good time playing somebody likeable. That’s why people in pain are so much fun to watch.”