December 3, 2018
Rated ‘R’ for violence, language and sexuality/nudity.
Stars John Cusack, Billy Bob Thornton, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Platt.
The wildest double-bill I ever saw an ad for involved an Ohio drive-in the mid-1960s that managed to splice Becket with a re-issue of the Martin & Lewis girls’-school romp You’re Never Too Young. Some direct descendent, or at least sanitarium soulmate, of the film booker responsible must have worked at Focus Features 40 years later when the decision was made to position The Ice Harvest, with all its foiled-caper nastiness, as a holiday picture (Friday after Thanksgiving, 2005). Talk about an exercise in perversity, to say nothing of commercial suicide — but I still think, as I did at the time, that Harvest deserved a better shake than it got (critics, with some brand-name exceptions, didn’t like it, either).
Even by noir standards — and this one has a lot of noir DNA, including Connie Nielsen’s vintage-movie-poster-caliber babe — Harvest is uncommonly brutal in language, graphic bodily harm and, well, life attitude. Especially for a movie with recognizable stars and filmmakers (with the latter working out of their wheelhouse). For starters on the last count was Robert Benton, who co-scripted this adaptation of a Scott Phillips novel, and even Bonnie and Clyde (the picture that made him) wasn’t this down and dirty. And Benton’s writing partner here was novelist Richard Russo, whose novel Nobody’s Fool became the wonderful, big-hearted Paul Newman movie the two co-scripted and Benton directed.
Though their dialogue here is funny — and a key point here is that Harvest has a lot of laughs — it’s still an eye-opener to find it on Harold Ramis’s own behind-the-camera filmography. Nor does Ramis fumble the assignment; this is one of the better pictures from a spotty directorial career, even if it’s minor fare (no shame in that) that’s more along the lines of what a satisfying drive-in movie used to be. At 88 minutes, it’s tight, and doesn’t let up from an opening that wastes no time in letting us know that the most successful, well-dressed mob lawyer in Wichita (John Cusack) has ripped off $2 million from his employer on Christmas Eve and in a manner that won’t remain secret for very long.
But in keeping with the movie’s basic attitude that life is futile, the winter roads are too dangerous to facilitate a quick getaway with his sleazier partner-in-crime (Billy Bob Thornton — whose dialogue deliveries, as always, are spot on). And Wichita isn’t a large enough place to maintain a low-key presence, especially when Cusack is spending a lot of visible time at his strip bar of choice, which at least has a sympathetic bartender and other employees willing to supply him with a hiding room when certain local “figures” come in looking for him. Nielsen’s character owns the establishment, and it’s no small mental exercise wondering what her background might be. Whatever it is, and the movie is purposely sketchy about this, divorced Cusack has a big-time yen.
Indicative of the manner in which this story enjoys going in warped directions, Cusack’s ex is now married to an alcoholically loquacious lawyer buddy played by any movie’s secret weapon this side of Thornton: Oliver Platt. He seems to be the only close buddy that Cusack has, and the affection is real, though it does lead to a bleak if hilarious confrontation with Cusack’s kids and former in-laws when he drops in with Platt for dinner. Not that Platt gets much of a better reception given his blitzed state, which eventually leads to him passing out near a tree of presents with no one else (and much less the Mrs.) to be seen.
Cusack is flawless here, though this is the kind of take-for-granted performance that never garners much critical notice even in a movie that’s been enthusiastically received. I can’t figure out what has happened to his career, though I’ve always sensed that he might be something of a hothead. In contrast to, say, Jeff Bridges, the slower-fuse excellence of all the cult movies he made earlier on eventually caught up with audiences and made him a bigger star in later years than he’d been.
I also like the skill with which Harvest conveys the bitter cold of this movie winter. On a commentary carried over from the original DVD, Ramis (who died in 2014) mentions the CGI that helped out convincingly on this count, as in the snowy highway late in the movie that got a computer assist on the snow. Ramis apparently did this easygoing commentary a few days before the movie’s theatrical release, when he wasn’t certain how its reception would go. It kind of adds poignancy to the entire enterprise, especially given that Harvest was his only big-screen feature in a seven-year period as serious and eventually fatal health problems loomed on the horizon.