Small-scale in the best sense possible, The Ice Harvest proves that modest, workmanlike film noir need not be accompanied by hipster homages and ironic self-consciousness. Directed by Harold Ramis with a craftsmanship that calls little attention to itself, this Christmastime crime caper boasts a sincere existentialist heart and jet-black funny bone, two attributes unsullied by wink-wink allusions to its genre forefathers and delivered with a damp, depressing mixture of cynicism and resignation. Charlie Arglist (John Cusack) is a mob lawyer in Wichita, Kansas who, along with vicious strip club manager Vic (Billy Bob Thornton), gets the not-so-bright idea to rob his gangster client Bill Guerrard (Randy Quaid, in a fine third-act appearance) of $2 million on Christmas Eve. A lonely bachelor with a son who hates him, an ex-wife now married to his best friend Pete (a dissolute Oliver Platt), and few remaining scruples, Charlie chooses to risk his cushy but soul-deadening life as a crooked attorney primarily because he’s become divorced from moral quandaries about right and wrong. Driven by a fatalistic belief that “It is futile to regret. You do one thing, you do another…So what?,” Charlie’s confidence in his “perfect crime” is nonetheless torn asunder by a series of unfortunate events involving Guerrard’s henchman, Pete’s drunken shenanigans, and the unexpected affections of sultry femme fatale Renata (Connie Nielsen, wielding her alluring accent and awe-inspiringly long legs like weapons).
The evening’s freezing rain has transformed the town into one big ice rink, the slippery road conditions proving a fitting metaphor for Charlie’s increasingly unstable situation, and a magnificent Cusack roots the wayward character in devil-may-care defeatism, his hangdog countenance (only seldom broken by a lackluster smile) and biting sarcasm symptoms of a larger world-weariness that’s emblematic of The Ice Harvest’s seedy holiday season milieu. Billy Bob Thornton offers little other than mordant cretinism as Vic—though there’s something compellingly creepy about a man who unhesitatingly kills his wife and then, when her corpse won’t cooperatively fit into a car trunk, upbraids her with “She could never do anything right”—and the film’s skeevy anti-Christmas spirit (all bruised strippers, crotch kicks, and bloodshed) feels, after Bad Santa, like a stale joke. Yet Ramis’s economical, unflashy direction consistently maintains a mood of matter-of-fact bleakness that, even as Richard Russo and Robert Benton’s script (based on Scott Phillips’s novel) begins spinning in increasingly absurd, nasty directions, remains oddly inviting. And there’s something deliciously, deviously subversive about the film’s jaded conclusion, which craftily twists noir’s stipulation that overstepping one’s lot in life is a doomed endeavor by asserting that inclusion on Santa’s nice list sometimes requires more than a little naughty behavior.