“People always say there’s no such thing as the perfect crime,” observes Charlie Arglist (John Cusack) at the start of The Ice Harvest. And so you know: this Christmas-timey movie is all about the effort to commit just that. As Charlie says, “It’s really all a matter of character.”
Charlie should know. A mob lawyer in Wichita, Kansas, he’s seen his crimes and characters, to the point that he’s not even so eager to make it known that he’s got scary associates. This, it turns out, is the favorite drunken activity of his best friend and ex-wife’s new, sadly fragile husband, Pete (Oliver Platt): whatever bar they’re in, Pete announces Charlie’s status (after he’s announced himself: “Yo ho ho ho mo-fo!”), so as to impress and alarm any would-be posers. In fact, Charlie and Pete’s relationship—or rather, their shared sense of abuse by the wife—evolves over Christmas Eve into something of a beautiful friendship, the sort of male bond based in a shared experience of violence and fear.
The jumpstart for this evolution is Charlie’s manifestly bad decision to stick it to his gangster client Bill Guerrard (Randy Quaid) for some $2 million. Worse, Charlie has stolen the money with the seeming help of strip club owner Vic (Billy Bob Thornton). “Seeming,” because the robbery is already done as the film begins, with Charlie plopping down in the passenger seat of Vic’s Lincoln, drenched with rain and troubled by second thoughts—within minutes doing the deed. Vic assures him the idea is sound, offers to keep the bag at his place, and drops off Charlie at home. “Just act normal for a few hours,” slicks Vic, “And we’re home free.”
But of course, there’s no normal here. Everyone in Wichita on Christmas Eve is miserable, scheming, and desperate to get out. In the men’s room at the Sweet Taste strip club, Charlie sees a scrawl that may or may not pertain to his general sense of despair: “As Wichita Falls, so falls Wichita Falls.” No logic, ambition, or exertion can save him.
When Charlie learns that a big palooka named Roy Gelles (Mike Starr) is looking for him, he’s briefly distracted, even hiding in the bathroom, as he tries to figure how to elude detection. Though Charlie is sure that Roy is onto his theft and means to punish him—a fear exacerbated when he hears that Bill’s looking for Vic. For his part, Vic remains preternaturally cocky, sure that he’s planned the heist to a tee, and sick of Charlie’s fretting (it’s Charlie’s ingenious plan, but, as Vic points out, he brought the oomph and nerve to get it done).
While Vic insists that he’s headed home to be nice to his wife (who appears only briefly, from the back), Charlie does some good deeding, making sure that Pete gets over to the in-laws for a holiday gathering. This leads to the most obnoxious sort of family run-in, as Charlie’s ex, her parents, and his son all make clear that he’s most non grata. Pete is hardly more welcome. Invited to eat desert, he slams into his mother-in-law: “Screw the pie, you old harpy. We’re here for dinner,” he declares, “Turkey-lurkey!” This as he rips a leg off the perfectly appointed bird and begins gnawing at it.
Charlie, for his part, understands Pete’s childish rebellion. He’s so frankly relieved not to be part of the familial scene that he gazes on his friend with pity when Pete confesses he and the wife were “fucking” when Charlie was still married to her. But while Charlie’s efforts to stand outside all the shenanigans, to observe and not partake in increasingly spectacular cruelties, don’t make him admirable so much as he seems unmoored. The partnership with Vic is bound to unravel, if only because Thornton is, now and forever, Bad Santa.
As Charlie careens between feeling brash and tentative, he follows the usual noiry hero’s route, descending though he knows better. His generic situation becomes clear when he encounters the one woman in town who seems as determined to leave as he does. Sultry Renata (Connie Nielsen, channeling Body Heat-era Kathleen Turner) makes him promise to retrieve a sex picture she made in order to compromise a certain civic official. As she’s clearly independent and otherwise engaged, you might think this request is merely a distraction, or a trap, or something that Charlie shouldn’t be messing with. You’d be right, and Charlie appears to know this, but he uses Renata too. She keeps his mind off what he sees as his most immediate anxiety, for a minute anyway.
For all this running around—in driving rain and icy road conditions, to boot—the film never picks up speed. It’s like a thriller in slow motion, a comedy that telegraphs its punch lines. If Charlie appears seem energetic, if not exactly inspired, it’s only because he’s in constant, circular motion. Surrounded by antic dunderheads and furious bunglers, he responds as if mystified, though he’s plainly well acquainted with such behavior, if not a master of it in his own, indirect way. Charlie’s positioned twice—as conventional, self-aware hero and dim anti-hero, both sustained by the oddly convincing, refreshingly subtle, and relentlessly appealing John Cusack.