Modern film noir isn’t the easiest style to successfully bring off, at least not without appearing overly cute or self-conscious about it. This blood-soaked mix of dark humor and double cross manages to navigate that minefield without making the audience look at their watches until the end credits roll.
The last film to so adroitly combine noir elements, ironic humor and a byzantine plot was Wild Things and The Ice Harvest is good deal less trashy and more sophisticated than that potboiler.
Charlie Arglist (John Cusack) is a Mob lawyer in Wichita, Kansas, who gets roped into helping his friend, Vic Cavanaugh (Billy Bob Thornton), steal $2 million from mob boss Bill Guerrard (Randy Quaid) on a frigid Christmas Eve. Charlie normally isn’t this much of a risk taker, but has followed Vic into this scheme largely due to his lifelong philosophy of taking the path of least resistance. The windfall from the job also helps him come to the aid of Renata (Connie Nielsen), the owner of Charlie’s favorite strip joint.
The story begins with Charlie successfully stealing the money, so that isn’t a matter of any suspense. Getting out of Wichita alive, however, proves to be a challenge, especially when Roy (Mike Starr), one of Guerrard’s hit men, shows up in town, looking for Charlie and Vic. Further complicating Charlie’s escape is his drunken, depressed best friend, Pete, who happens to be married to Charlie’s ex-wife. Stealing Charlie’s wife makes Pete more of an object of pity in Charlie’s eyes than one of betrayal or anger.
Charlie briefly panics when he goes to meet Vic and finds a pool of blood instead. Vic turns up alive, however, with Roy the hit man trapped in a trunk. The challenge becomes finding a car big enough to hall the trunk down to a lake and feed Roy to the fish. At this point Charlie realizes that if Vic can so casually murder Roy, then he is anything but safe.
This is one of those movies where everyone eventually double crosses everyone else and the suspense becomes not who can be trusted but who will be left to leave town with the money when it’s all over.
Cusack is perfect as the sweet-faced, somewhat spineless protagonist. He’s the nicest mobster you ever met and really only kills the really bad people. Vic is a classic Thornton role, exuding slick redneck charm that makes you want to like him, even if you can’t trust him farther than you can throw a trunk filled with 250 pounds of hit man. Connie Nielsen adds classic femme fatale to her already widely varied résumé. She plays the role flawlessly and looks delicious doing it
If you like your movie heroes upright and moral or you’re the least bit squeamish, this probably isn’t the film for you, but for the rest of us, it’s a successful re-invention of the classic noir thriller.