Friday, December 4, 2009
Christmas Noir: The Ice Harvest
“As Wichita Falls, so falls Wichita Falls ... “
Someone has been writing those words on the walls of men’s rooms in bars, restaurants and strip joints all over the town of Wichita Falls. We don’t know who until the end of The Ice Harvest (2005), but those words are a thread that leads us through this melancholy, darkly comic story of corruption, murder, and quiet desperation at Christmas time. It touches on the ultimate meaninglessness of our existence even as it addresses the importance of self-assessment and personal responsibility.
When we meet Charlie Arglist (John Cusack) on Christmas Eve, he has just stolen over two million dollars from his boss, a local gangster named Bill Guerrard (Randy Quaid), with the help of his friend Vic Cavanaugh (Billy Bob Thornton). Vic decides to hold the money until they can get out of town. In the brief exchange during which this decision is made, we quickly learn that Charlie is a hesitant, reluctant thief who’s not sure he’s done the right thing, while Vic is a cold, hard-as-nails man who feels entitled to the money and possesses not a shred of doubt about the deed, a man who merely tolerates Charlie’s presence in this deal. We know all of this because the scene – the entire movie, in fact – is so brilliantly written and acted that even though everything on the surface is spare and minimal, it reveals volumes of information.
Charlie is a lawyer. A mob lawyer, as his friend Pete Van Heuten (Oliver Platt) is so fond of pointing out loudly and drunkenly when they meet in a bar later that evening. Pete is married to Sarabeth, Charlie’s ex-wife and the mother of Charlie’s two children. It turns out that Pete is no happier with Sarabeth than Charlie apparently was. Charlie drives the drunken Pete to Sarabeth’s parents’ house for Christmas Eve dinner and Pete makes a confession outside the house.
Pete says, “Back when you and Sarabeth were still married that last year ...“
“She and I were fucking.”
“No kidding,” Charlie says.
“Like minks. Everywhere. Kitchen table, your bed, garage.”
“Jesus, Charlie we were friends. It doesn’t make you angry?”
“Actually, it makes me curious. Makes me wonder who she’s fucking now.”
There’s genuine affection between these two men, and it’s the most interesting relationship in the film. The scene in the house that follows the one described above is among my favorites, but it’s hard to pick favorites in a movie so full of one memorable, standout scene after another. All movies tell a story of some sort (well ... theoretically), but great movies are made up of outstanding moments. These are the scenes you remember most vividly afterward, scenes that capture a mood, an emotion, or the essence of the entire movie. The Ice Harvest is rich with such moments.
The entire film takes place on Christmas Eve. We follow Charlie Arglist around town as the web in which he finds himself entangled – by his own doing, of course – wraps around him more and more tightly. There’s a great story here. The Ice Harvest is the best crime film to come along in years. But as always with the best film noir – and this is pure, unadulterated noir – it’s not the story that stays with us after the movie ends. It’s the overall mood, the emotions expressed, the things the movie made us feel. For a movie with such a high body count, it’s in the feelings where The Ice Harvest hits us the hardest. And they are not the warm, cuddly feelings we’ve come to expect from a Christmas movie.
Early in the film, Charlie and Pete sit in Charlie’s car at a traffic light and have a conversation about regrets. Charlie says he doesn’t believe in them. He talks about his father and his father’s twin brother.
“Fraternal,” he says. “Looked a lot alike, though, him and my uncle. Different temperaments completely. My father, he's a cop. By-the-book guy. Believed in the law, wanted his only son to be a lawyer. Drank in moderation, didn't smoke. Kept up his life insurance premiums. Voted in every election, not just for president.”
“Lemme guess,” Pete says. “Uncle didn’t vote.”
“He said he didn't want to encourage the bastards,” Charlie says. “In and out of jail from the time he was 16 ... drunk all the time, fucked everything that walked. Won a fortune playing poker, lost it all the same way. Lost an eye in a fight. My father was 54 when he died of a massive embolism, right here in Wichita. My uncle died the very next day in a car wreck in California. So the point is ... it is futile to regret. You do one thing, you do another ... I mean, so what? What's the difference? Same result.”
Just as we quickly learn a lot from the first scene between Charlie and Vic, there’s a lot of information revealed about Charlie here. Is he telling this story to Pete alone? Or is he telling it to himself as well, trying to convince himself that he really doesn’t believe in regrets, that he has none? Throughout the movie, Cusack’s weary, quiet performance is loaded with regret. Even though it’s obvious that Sarabeth is a stone-cold bitch, Charlie seems to regret that he couldn’t make their marriage work. He regrets walking away from his children. He certainly regrets the fact that his son now hates him, and fully understands why. He even regrets being unable to talk his friend Pete out of marrying Sarabeth and knows all too well what Pete is going through now. And he regrets ever stealing that money from Bill Guerrard. This whole movie screams regrets. The only person with no regrets is Vic -- and that says a lot about people who have no regrets.
There is more sterling talent in and behind The Ice Harvest than we usually find in a single movie these days. The script, based on Scott Phillips’s novel, is cowritten by the great Robert Benton, whose writing, producing and directing resume includes such titles as The Late Show, Superman (screenplay only), Kramer vs. Kramer, Places in the Heart, Billy Bathgate, Nobody’s Fool, and another wonderful film noir from 1998, Twilight (not the one about sparkly vampires). The other cowriter is Richard Russo, one of the best novelists working today, who has worked on two film adaptations of his books, Nobody’s Fool and Empire Falls, and also cowrote Twilight and the delightful dark comedy Keeping Mum, among other things. The Ice Harvest is directed by writer, producer, director, actor and comedy god Harold Ramis, whose fingerprints are all over some of the greatest comedies ever made, including Caddyshack, Stripes, Vacation, Ghostbusters, Back to School, Groundhog Day, Analyze This – the list goes on.
From the stars to the supporting actors, the cast is impeccable. John Cusack gives one of his best performances here – wistful, sad, funny. Billy Bob Thornton is, in my opinion, one of the greatest movie actors alive today. He is able to convey so much with so little and is a quiet but powerful screen presence who demands your attention at all times. Equally adept at comedy, menace and even tenderness, I can’t imagine any role that Thornton could not successfully tackle. Here, he is colder than the snow and ice that permeate the film. The counterpoint to Thornton’s bitingly cold performance is the seductive Connie Nielsen. If the act of sexual intercourse could be transformed into a single living, breathing human being, it would be Nielsen in The Ice Harvest. Her smoldering, sexual turn as strip club manager Renata harks back to the steamy femme fatales that were common on movie screens back in the forties and fifties but are so sadly rare today.
As Bill Guerrard, Randy Quaid is big, ugly and menacing. He appears only briefly, but he’s a presence throughout the film, and when he finally steps onscreen, he is everything he has been built up to be. Ned Bellamy is gut-bustingly funny as the angry, violent bartender who says the most obscene things you’ve ever heard anyone say about his own mother (“Shut up, you toothless old whore!”). But even in the midst of all these glowing performances, there is one actor who stands out explosively and steals the spotlight every time he’s onscreen. Oliver Platt doesn’t seem to get a lot of attention, but in the future I think he will be recognized as one of the finest character actors of his generation. As Pete Van Hueten, he’s as angry as he is depressed, as hilarious as he is sad, and he will make you laugh hard.
Be sure to watch the DVD extras. They include two alternate endings. While I understand why the existing ending was chosen – it’s far more commercial, for one thing – I personally prefer either of the two alternates, because both are consistent with the film’s tone throughout, and both – to me, anyway – are more honest and satisfying. There’s also an interesting conversation between Benton, Russo and novelist Scott Phillips about adapting the book for the screen.
The Ice Harvest is more a movie that takes place at Christmas than an actual Christmas movie, but frankly, it’s the kind of Christmas movie I prefer. There is a mood during the holiday season that exists at no other time of the year, and contrary to what the media usually tells us, it is not necessarily a pleasant one. Writer Kate L. Bosher said, “Isn't it funny that at Christmas something in you gets so lonely for – I don't know what exactly, but it's something that you don't mind so much not having at other times.” I like that quote. It captures something most of us feel at Christmas that is so elusive, even Bosher can’t pinpoint it while describing it. The Ice Harvest is a movie that is, in part, about regrets. Wrong decisions. Mistakes made. Because Christmas comes at the end of the year, it’s a time when we tend to take personal inventory. For that reason, I think it’s a very appropriate movie.
The Ice Harvest takes us through a Christmas Eve that is dark, funny, sexy, sad and disturbing. At a time when we’re told we’re supposed to feel warm and happy and generous, this movie asks, What the hell are we doing here and what does it matter? It will make you feel quite relieved that all you have to do this holiday season is spend some time with your crazy family.