It's Christmas Eve in Wichita, and a lawyer who makes his living from taking the cases of the Mob is pondering his next move after stealing over two million dollars from his boss. This lawyer is Charlie Arglist (John Cusack) and he hasn't been acting alone, for he has a partner in crime, Vic Cavanaugh (Billy Bob Thornton) who assures him he will take care of the bag full of cash while they wait for the heat to die down, but this does set Charlie off wondering how trustworthy Vic actually is. Something to worry about as the night draws on and he visits his local strip club to have a much-needed, nerves-steadying drink. While he's there, he meets the businesswoman he is carrying a torch for, Renata (Connie Nielsen), who he would like to do a deal with and possibly run off together, but there's always a snag, isn't there?
The Ice Harvest did next to nothing when it was first released, garnering mostly lukewarm reviews and failing to interest the public for whom this wasn't their idea of a cosy Christmas movie. Indeed, it was about as chilly as the weather in Wichita, with rain turning to ice across the landscape, which would have been offputting even for a work described as a black comedy, though in effect just as that precipitation was freezing, the comedy tended to turn to bleak drama more often than not. It was directed by Harold Ramis, who had much experience in humour though in spite of some serious elements to his best film Groundhog Day was not exactly welcomed for his less deliberately laugh-inducing material.
As this was based on a less than well known novel by Scott Phillips, the script from Richard Russo and Robert Benton (himself no slouch at mixing comedy with drama in his self-directed efforts) delivered a distinctly novelish tone, something Ramis was only too happy to expand upon with the emphasis on cynical dialogue and world-weary characters practically goading one another into fresh depths of despair and self-degradation - though the degradation of others is preferable. Helping this were a brace of performances largely behaving as if the heyday of film noir had never finished; well, there was the neo-noir of the eighties and nineties, but even that had grown old hat by the early twenty-first century which could be another reason The Ice Harvest didn't catch on.
Not initially at any rate, but then a funny thing happened, as certain movie buffs looked around for seasonal entertainments to watch, and this became a staple of those who preferred a Christmas film with bite, joining the ranks of Black Christmas, Die Hard or Bad Santa for the Yuletide favourites which mixed the end of the year festivities with a more bracing pessimism that pointed out not everyone has a fine old time on December the 25th. It was accurate to say those performances were a boon to anyone seeking that acid mood, as the balance of power shifts between the collection of fairly well-known actors, some one scene wonders, others with more substantial things to do. Oliver Platt who played Charlie's boozy pal and colleague Pete Van Heuten counted this as one of his most beloved roles, and you could sense the cast were relishing their work.
Platt apparently liked Pete so much that he more or less went on to play him in cult television drama Huff for a couple of seasons, but that was not to do down what he achieved, a funny, tragic and often obnoxious character who managed to lighten the tone even if one of his testicles has been kicked up into his body cavity. Thornton too was in complete control, interesting as this had echoes in his dark-hearted villainy of the Fargo television series, since you couldn't imagine many involved in The Ice Harvest had not seen the Coen Brothers classic around ten years before, but it was really Cusack who held it together in a period where he was increasingly phoning in his performances in pulp unworthy of his talents, as if he thought they were what he deserved by that point. In this case, he was as engaged as his co-stars, Nielsen essaying a brazen femme fatale with slinky, jaded aplomb and even Mike Starr and Randy Quaid as hitmen making an impression in spite of limited scenes. Overall, it was a tad too sorry for itself, but if you liked good actors appreciating good lines, it was fine. Music by David Kitay.