The Ice Harvest
Director: Harold Ramis

Director: Terry Zwigoff

Reviewed by Paghat the Ratgirl

Bad Santa If only it were possible to get past the amazing amount of foul language & randy jokes about Billy Bob Thornton as sotted con artist Willie doing it up fat ladies' bums, Bad Santa (or the DVD uncut as Badder Santa) is very nearly a story suitable for the whole family, because the affection of a child (Brett Kelly) for the Bad Santa is ultimately his salvation. It's a wussy pro-Christmas film pretending to be cynical.

And frankly, a genuine anti-Christmas story would've been better than this phony heartwarming nonsense. The script was too cowardly for that, & a mediocre C-list supporting cast (Tony Cox, Cloris Leachman, Bernie Mac) don't seem to care what film they're in just so long as someone gives 'em a job.

Family values win the day. After such extreme criminality & vileness, & even some ha-ha murders, the sudden happy ending is forced & not even slightly likely. But hey, it's christmas, & for some dumbass reason a lot of people are susceptible to heartworms mixed liberally with swear-words & sugar. Me, no.

The Ice HarvestThe antidote for such a commercial & fraudulantly black comedy is the genuine article, The Ice Harvest (2005). Billy Bob Thornton is a co-star in this much more authentic "anti-Christmas" story.

It's a "post-heist" film that includes no information about how the "perfect crime" was achieved, other than to prove it wasn't so perfect. The tale opens with mob attorney Charlie (Cussack) & pornographer & s trip club mogul Vic (Thornton) victorious over their success.

Vic takes the two-million-plus to "protect it" until they can meet later to leave Wichita. Right away Charlie has doubts about his partner, sufficietly justifiable that they should've divided the money then & there & gone their separate ways, in which case the rest of the film couldn't've been made.

It's totally credible Charlie wouldn't do what obvioiusly needed to be done, as he's as weak-willed as he is intelligent. He planned this heist but only as an idle fantasy; it took someone deeply disturbed like Vic to add iron nerve to the doing. And as soon as Charlie walks away from the car, easily convinced by Vic he should take every cent with him, it's questionable that Charlie will ever see any of it again.

The Ice HarvestWe mostly follow Charlie through the rest of Christmas Eve as he visits a couple topless bars. There's a freezing rain falling the whole night; the roads are iced. And whoever lives in Wichita is welcome to be insulted that this ugly, ugly part of America captures perfectly the ugliness of the Christmas spirit in action.

The first topless joint is the Sweet Cage apparently co-owned by femme fatale Renata (Connie Nielsen), partner to strip club mogul Vic. Renata's manager is Sidney (Ned Bellamy) who calls his mom a toothless whore during their Christmas phone call. He is potentially dangerously violent, but a good guy at heart. He only hurts bad guys in the good cause of protecting the strippers, & would never act on persistent fantasizes of doing likewise to his mom.

Renata is wondering about what her next business or life choice is going to be, as nude clubs will be illegal in Wichita after the first of the year. This is obviously the reason Vic wanted a bundle before skipping town. Renata is ready for a big change, if only she had sufficient cash to start anew in another place. Charlie clearly hopes he can worm his way into that uncertain future.

He decides to help her raise extra funds by stealing one of Vic's blackmail photographs for her. She can get a big cash payment selling it to the snarky politician shown doing a hooker up the rear. To get this photo Charlie just walks into another nudie club, the Tease-o-Rama, where Vic has his offices & a safe Charlie knows how to access.

The Ice HarvestCharlie hangs out regularly in these sorts of low dives, & is equally familiar with a "massage" parlor, the Velvet Touch, a grimy bordello. As he carouses from one place to the next, he experiences vague existential angst about what he's done, then finds that he must keep evading enforcer & hired killer Roy Gillus (Mike Starr) who is likewise wandering the night, in search of Vic & Charlie.

Both men have done enough in their lives to be uncertain if Roy is after them due to the "perfect" crime's imperfection or some other deed. The "plot" is a little shaky but the mood & edgy half-slapstick thriller ingredients & dead-on performances are way out there in the territory of seedy art.

In some ways The Ice Harvest is like a Cohen brothers comic thriller cross-fertilized with Pulp Fiction (1994), may the Lord God punish Tarantino for never being good again. With lots of weird characters among the supporting cast, with the nasty weather symbolic of the entire fabric of life in a gangster-ridden world of grim bitter cruelties, betrayals, & sudden violence, Ice Harvest never flags for interest even if the story remains vague.

It's never totally clear where humor ends & evil begins, but these are in the main people who have earned each other. And while the level of sleeze & gore is rather high for a film that aspires to much more than exploitation, it manages at the same time to be about people.

Even such scenes as Charlie's last-minute attempt to buy his kids Christmas presents at the dollar-store conveys a combination worthless turd & agony of the psyche, even for our "hero" whom Sidney tags as the only decent man he knows. "I'm sorry to hear that," notes an alarmed Charlie.

The Ice HarvestThe last half-hour is a series of climactic setpieces that each could've been shocking conclusions, building upon one another without redundancy. With the discovery of a thumb in a vice in back room at the Velvet Touch (try not to ask why a whorehouse need a vice grip), Charlie is certain Vic is dead. But it's the thumb of would-be assassin Roy.

Vic has Roy at home, locked up in a sea chest. Vic's wife, in an attitude of prayer before the Christmas tree, is dead with a bullet through her head, killed Vic says by Roy, Roy says (from inside the chest) by Vic, so Charlie doesn't know what to believe, though roy additionally claiming Vic will kill Charlie next is beginning to feel increasingly plausible.

He & Vic take the chest with Roy in it, as also Vic's wife wrapped in plastic, to a frozen lake intending to sink them under the ice. Vic wanted Roy to go down into cold depths alive, but he won't shut up in the box, so Vic guesses where his head might be, & shoots him. Roy makes no more noises. But in a tale crammed with unexpected moments, it's liable to prove misguided assuming he's dead.

The death of Roy is both gruesome & comical, & leads neatly into the deadly sequence that caps off the widening rift between Vic & Charlie. The setting is this absolutely elegant though decaying & horrific night-time scene on a crumbling dock on the lake, too beautiful to be real though it looks absolutely like a scouted location. It is of course a created location, thanks to one of best production designers of all time, Patrizia von Brandenstein, whose amazing work has made visual wonders of many a film, including Amadeus (1984) which earned her an Oscar.

The Ice HarvestAs creepy, darkly funny, brutal bits track one after another, the downfall of Vic completely trumps the previous unfolding of the downfall of Roy-in-the-Box. Alas Vic goes down without revealing where the money is "protected" & Charlie can only hope his beloved femme fatale will still be interested in him if he's dirt broke.

Enter second assassin, the "top dawg" Bill Gerard (Randy Quaid), who plans to kill the lovely Renata, that leading lady who has stepped off the cover of a 1940s detective pulp magazine, or out of a film noir starring Veronica Lake or Lauren Bacall.

Connie Nielsen has got the dangerous dame routine down pat. But at present she's bound to a chair & fairly helpless, doomed unless Charlie saves her, which he sure hopes he can do. It becomes a three-way "duel" with Quaid's scary villain performance dominant. Charlie gets his foot solidly nailed to the floor with a dagger, & Renata cowers in a corner waiting to be shot point-blank in the face.

That bit manages incredibly enough to end well for Charlie & Renata, apart from Renata's resounding, "Yuck!" Sadly for Charlie, while Renata's in the bathroom cleaning gore off herself, Charlie finally gets wise, looks in the right closet, & realizes Renata is going to kill him. When next she embraces him with promises of ever lasting togetherness, he's ready for the fact that she is slyly readying a straight razor. Well merry Christmas everyone!

The Ice HarvestA major though barely connected character present through much of the early part of The Ice Harvest is Pete, ably played by Oliver Platt. He's married to Charlie's ex-wife Sarabeth (Justine Bentley). She's no more faithful to Pete than she'd been to Charlie. But Pete's greater source of unhappiness seems to be that he betrayed Charlie, who doesn't seem to care all that much about water under the bridge.

Pete is a drunken sadsack with a disgusting sense of humor. He wishes he & Charlie could run away together somehow, maybe do some terrible crime & go out in a blaze of glory. It's a sweet odd desire, to be queer-in-love but not queer, to recapture youthful friendship like unto a crush, since the adult world of "money & pussy" has been so disappointing to him.

He vanishes from the most vicious ipart of the story & never knows what Charlie's up to; but he will certainly return for a sweet coda, so that in the wake of all the mayhem & death, Charlie can go off into the sunset, prairie sunrise as the case may be, to live happily ever after with Pete. It's not such a happy ending that it negates the cynicism of the tale up to then; the moral would seem, rather, that Heaven doesn't have to be all that much when Hell is the only other option.

I liked this ending but there are two alternate endings among the dvd extras which carry the abject cynicism to its ultimate conclusion. Very unsatisfying & a good thing these endings were rejected.

As a general rule, films which reveal in their extras that there were multiple endings being filmed weren't written well at any point in the story. A well-written tale will find an inevitable ending, rather than retain to the last minute a checklist or multiple choice of how to wrap it up. Yet for all that narrative thrust is a weak point, The Ice Harvest is wonderfully written, & it surprises me the ending they ultimately selected wasn't from the start the one intended. Really I'd rather not have known how "else" it turned out for Charlie, even if only in an alternate dimension.

Though Bad Santa struck me as a pro-Christmas tale posing as anti-Christmas merely too vulgar for kids, The Ice Harvest is the genuine article. At this point in the history of cinema, I can only think of one other anti-Christmas movie that is it's equal, & that's The Ref (1994).

copyright by Paghat the Ratgirl

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