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'Twas the noir before Christmas

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Although it may not attain anything like a complete artistic success, The Ice Harvest provides a valuable antidote to the usual malaise of holiday entertainment.

We suffer the endless cacophony of those stirring ballads about Frosty and Rudolph, the sentimental made-for-TV movies about the horribly dysfunctional family reuniting for Christmas after years of separation and forgiving each other all that homicide and incest, and the repeated sight of Jimmy Stewart running down the snowy streets of BedfordFalls every night on every channel. After all that saccharine sweetness and false cheer, a dark, offbeat, semi-comic, and occasionally nasty Christmas film noir, no matter how violent, seems positively salubrious.

The movie opens on an icy Christmas Eve in Wichita, Kansas, with a situation that could form the conclusion of any big caper movie. John Cusack plays a small time mob lawyer who apparently fronts for the owner of some strip joints. He and his partner (Billy Bob Thornton) have skimmed more than $2 million from the Kansas City mobster who employs them in what Cusack calls a perfect crime.

Once they get the money, of course, their troubles begin, a series of violent encounters mixed with low comedy and complicated by all sorts of entanglements, some of them related to the holiday, with friends and family.

A number of subplots, not all of which reach full resolution, develop from the initial situation. Suffering from a bad case of cold feet, Charlie bounces around through much of the night from bar to bar and strip club to strip club --- a special way to spend Christmas Eve --- and grows more desperate when he learns that his employer suspects him and Thornton of the theft and has sent an enforcer to take care of the matter. In addition to his attempts to avoid the killer, Charlie also agrees, out of misguided passion, to deliver a photograph of a sternly religious city councilman in a compromising sexual situation to the owner of one of the clubs (Connie Nielsen).

Other events accumulate throughout the lawyer's Christmas odyssey, increasing his anxiety and emphasizing his general failure at life. Transporting his drunken best friend (Oliver Platt) back to his family for Christmas Eve reveals some of that failure --- Platt, married to Charlie's ex-wife and regretting it, forces Charlie to participate in comically and outrageously offending his in-laws and destroying the dinner, one of the more shocking scenes in any Christmas movie.

The domestic scenes and Charlie's own realization of his inadequacy as an absentee father --- his son tells him he hates him --- intensify his awareness of the need to escape Wichita (a good idea), his associates, his profession, his life. Unfortunately, as it turns out, the mob boss, his henchman, and even his partner in crime plan something quite different. Despite the comic elements in both language and action, the movie turns increasingly darker as Christmas Eve wears on, with a couple of brutal beatings, a stabbing, and a total of six corpses before the night ends.

John Cusack turns in another casual, confident performance, matching his skills and talents to the picture's constantly shifting tone, and finally demonstrating a sad self awareness from the terrible experience of the night. As the requisite femme fatale, Connie Nielsen suggests the sexiness of all those seductive, deceptive women of the past; she speaks in a husky voice, with a measured delivery, and resembles an updated version of figures like Lizabeth Scott and Veronica Lake (a great look, by the way). Not surprisingly, Oliver Platt dominates every scene he enters, behaving atrociously, pushing his character, sometimes shockingly, perhaps farther than most actors would dare.

Despite its odd interplay between comedy and bloody violence, The Ice Harvest conforms perfectly with the traditions of film noir, a genre it extends in some new directions. It employs the special atmosphere of the form, even in its use of the dangerous ice storm that heightens Charlie's difficulties, impedes his progress, and contributes to his steadily worsening plight.

The context of the holiday, paradoxically, underlines the form's themes of guilt and betrayal, which add a whole new dimension to the Christmas flick.

The Ice Harvest (R), directed by Harold Ramis, is playing through Thursday, December 8, at Canandaigua Theatres, Culver Ridge 16, Eastview 13, Henrietta 18, Pittsford Cinema, Webster 12.

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