The Ice Harvest (2005)

Cynthia Fuchs

If Charlie appears seem energetic, if not exactly inspired, it's only because he's in constant, circular motion.

The Ice Harvest

Director: Harold Ramis
Cast: John Cusack, Billy Bob Thornton, Connie Nielsen, Randy Quaid, Oliver Platt
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Focus
First date: 2005
US Release Date: 2005-11-23

"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.





The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.


The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.


Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.


'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".


GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".


Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".


Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.


Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.


The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".


Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.


Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.