Tuesday, 25 July 2006

The Ice Harvest (DVD) (2005)

Billy Bob, we know you're a Bad Santa, but a lying, thieving Santa??

Here’s a slightly new take on the heist movie. What if, after the heist, the perpetuators cannot make their getaway? The Ice Harvest begins immediately after mob lawyer Charlie Arglist (John Cussack) and his professional partner, the strip club owner Vic (Billy Bob Thornton) make off with local mob boss Bill Guerrard’s (Randy Quaid) proceeds. It’s a perfect heist, since Bill won’t discover the missing money until the duo, long under his thumb and control, are far away and safe from his hulking presence.

There’s a hitch, though. It’s Christmas Eve, and Kansas is snowed under, the roads are frozen, and the guilty parties are stuck in town until the next morning, by which time, it might be a little too late to escape Boss Bill. As Charlie puts it, “I sue people for a living. You sell pornography. Bill Guerrard kills people.” How will they get through the longest night in their lives? It is, after all, Christmas Eve, and they need to act normally and attend the requisite social parties, have dinner with the family, meet their friends, all without giving the game away.

Friendly company is hell, especially if you have plans to skip town. Being forced to spend time smiling to strangers and friends you cannot shake off because you’re supposed to be a nice person on Christmas Eve is like stuck in the ninth circle of Hell. Ramis, Russo and Benton deliver a scathingly satirical and darkly funny account of one Christmas Eve night, compressed in a very short and snappy 88-minute plot.

The Ice Harvest will be perfect if you can overlook one very glaring plot weakness. How is it that Charlie Arglist is the best mob lawyer in the entire state of Kansas – a boast that his very drunken best friend (and the husband of his ex-wife) carelessly makes during the entire evening – and yet appears to be the stupid partner in the heist team? It’s not that Arglist is relatively stupid compared to the criminal genius of Vic, but that he is in fact somewhat of a fool, so much so there is absolutely no arguing that temporary custody of the stolen millions will go to Vic. Because Arglist is not just a little dumb, but a little nervous and a little too nice to everyone. He’s a mob lawyer, mind you. At no point do the writers attempt to explain this incongruity, so the viewer is advised to suspend disbelief on just this one point.

But back to what is good about the movie! One thing to like: the morbidly funny dialogue. Almost every character with a speaking role in this movie speaks with a deadpan humour darker than indigo, because they realise what wretched lives they’re leading, and how nearly impossible it is for them to escape their fallen states. Yes, that means Billy Bob Thornton and John Cussack don’t get the funny lines in The Ice Harvest, but their supporting cast all do!

Thornton and Cussack are beneficiaries of the second comic device in this movie. How will they crack under the pressure? Who will they blab their secret to? And ultimately, because Vic is a cold and heartless genius and Charlie is a man of all heart and no brains with a soft spot for down-on her-luck nightclub manager Renata (Connie Nielson), who will betray and double-cross the other?

The proceedings are starkly portrayed without any appeal or pretensions to dramatics, cinematics, or self-conscious Tarrantino-style hipness. I believe it’s all for the better, because the entire post-heist film is a brilliant situation comedy whose edge is actually sharpened with every nauseatingly happy Christmas song in the soundtrack.

If you could accept the conceit of Cussack’s nice and dumb top mob lawyer role, there’s an additional payoff, in that part of the droll humour of the movie consists of just how nice Charlie is, in a very nasty world inhabited by mostly nasty people, and how he reacts to them. It’s a role that only Cussack can pull off, with his choirboy looks.

First published at incinemas on 25 July 2006

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