The sad and untimely passing of Harold Ramis yesterday exacerbated my need to revisit his 2005 film The Ice Harvest. The film, shot for a very modest budget, flopped in its initial release, but has gained admirers in the years since. At the time, it struck me as a solid comedy with more than the usual on its mind, but in recent years, I’ve come to think of it as a stone-cold masterpiece. Maybe that’s why it was the first film I thought of when I heard that Ramis had died – not Ghostbusters, not Caddyshack, not even the wondrous Groundhog Day. Or maybe it was something else – something to do with the film itself, which is one of the most haunted and despairing comedies I’ve ever seen.
For those who haven’t seen The Ice Harvest (and, be warned, I’m about to go into some serious spoiler territory), it’s what we call a post-heist movie. It starts off with Wichita mob lawyer Charlie Arglist (John Cusack) and his shady pornographer pal Vic Cavanaugh (Billy Bob Thornton) having stolen a duffel bag full of money from Charlie’s mob client on Christmas Eve. (“My God, we’re actually doing this.” “No, we’re not doing it. It’s already done.”) The fact that the central crime has already occurred before the movie even begins immediately gives it a certain reflective, almost metaphorical quality, one that the film continues to develop as it proceeds.
The rest of the plot is straightforward, yet strangely elaborate. The two men are planning to skip town, but they first have to lie low for the next few hours. The mob, however, is already on to them. Meanwhile, Charlie gets embroiled in a blackmail scheme involving beautiful strip club owner Renata (Connie Nielsen). He also winds up spending a surprising amount of time with his drunk pal Pete Van Heuten (Oliver Platt), who married Charlie’s ex-wife. As the complications pile up, Charlie tries to get in contact with Vic, even though they’ve promised not to be seen together before they leave town. By the time it all ends, much of the cast has been murdered, many of them in quite gruesome fashion.
For all the intricacies of its story, however, The Ice Harvest takes it easy in terms of narrative: It doesn’t spell things out all that clearly. Subplots overlap with subplots, and I often have trouble keeping track of who’s double-crossing whom at any given point. There are two ways to tell this kind of story. One is to do it hyper-fast and hyper-stylized, heightening the already gruesome violence in ways that artificialize and commodify it – the classic “black comedy” style, where you laugh at the film’s darkness. But Ramis takes the opposite approach: He slows things down. He avoids bold and brash and instead opts for understated, and troubling. He allows the film’s darkness to have integrity, and weight. When a man who has killed his wife drowns in a frozen lake after her body is dropped on him, you maybe chuckle bitterly at the irony – but you don’t really laugh at it.
And so, the film is less interested in narrative and jokes than it is in mood. Dressed entirely in black, the grim figure of Charlie dominates the movie -- the first shot shows him standing against a wide, empty frozen expanse – and he moves through the film’s various spaces with a curious, nervous sense of detachment. In part this is a character point: He doesn’t want to draw attention to himself right before he makes his getaway. But it becomes clear as the film proceeds that Charlie’s demeanor isn’t a momentary tactic; it’s an existential fact.
At one point, a very drunk and very disillusioned Pete drags Charlie to a Christmas Eve dinner at his in-laws’ house (Pete’s current, Charlie’s former). Before they enter, Pete and Charlie look through the windows at the family sitting down to dinner. “That’s my chair in there,” Pete confides. “You wanna know the truth? I can’t fill it.” Charlie replies, quietly: “Neither could I, if it makes you feel any better.” The scene inside the house seems to bear this out. Charlie coolly greets his ex-wife and his kids, and his young daughter even hugs him, but there’s very little sense of parental affection or even intimacy here. Charlie keeps his distance, awkwardly, standing off to the side and trying not to get involved; it’s almost like he doesn’t exist. His older son even yells at him for being absent.
That scene is but the most prominent example in a series of exchanges that seem grounded in finality and obsolescence. Charlie’s final day in Wichita seemingly brings him in contact with the various parts of his life – the people he has loved or has known in some way – and as such represents a kind of farewell. The Ice Harvest is a movie about a man who goes through the night saying his goodbyes, only to find that he was never really there to begin with. You could think of it, in many ways, as the polar opposite of It’s a Wonderful Life. Charlie’s journey through the night doesn’t reveal his importance, the way it does for George Bailey; it confirms his absence, his meaninglessness.
At one point, Pete laments to Charlie that “there’s no goddamn life left for men anymore.” Pete’s regret is not so much for some lost code of masculinity but for a kind of extinction. He and Charlie are both irrelevant. One wonders if there’s a personal echo there for Ramis. In Tad Friend’s essential 2004 profile of the writer-director for The New Yorker (written while Ramis was prepping The Ice Harvest), he notes that during the 80s, when Ramis was turning his personal life around and becoming something of a Buddhist (or, as he called it, “Buddhish”), he joined something called “The Road-Kill Men’s Council.” I have no idea what this is – the title sounds like a joke – but I’d like to think it was a somewhat more ironic take on one of those Iron John get-back-in-touch-with-your-inner-man deals. Regardless, the name of the council would have made for an interesting alternate title for The Ice Harvest.
Still, unlike Pete, Charlie seems to be beyond any earthly regrets. He’s managed to grind his soul down to nothing. As a kind of obtuse explanation for his outlook on life, he relates to Pete the tale of his father and his fraternal twin:
“Looked a lot alike… him and my uncle. Different temperaments completely. My father, he's a cop. By-the-book guy. Believed in the law, wanted his only son to be a lawyer. Drank in moderation, didn't smoke. Kept up his life insurance premiums. Voted in every election, not just for president….[My uncle] said he didn't want to encourage the bastards. In and out of jail from the time he was 16. Drunk all the time, fucked everything that walked. Won a fortune playing poker, lost it all the same way. Lost an eye in a fight. My father was 54 when he died of a massive embolism, right here in Wichita. My uncle died the very next day in a car wreck in California. So the point is, it is futile to regret. You do one thing, you do another. I mean, so what? What's the difference? Same result.”
If the films Ramis made in the 1990s, including Groundhog Day, Analyze This, and Bedazzled, were his “redemption comedies,” The Ice Harvest feels like a dark corrective – the comedy of fallenness. It’s a movie not about a man who is searching for meaning, but a man who has realized life’s meaninglessness, and wants out. “As Wichita falls, so falls Wichita Falls” is the film’s constant refrain – a piece of graffiti that pops up periodically – and it seems to suggest an endless loop of damnation, the noirish flipside to Groundhog Day.
But there’s more to this, I think. Consider: The emotionless, black-clad protagonist. That aforementioned “final night” structure. The constant references to extinction and obsolescence. The oddly huge body count. A prevailing sense of melancholy dread. I’ve never quite been able to shake the sense that The Ice Harvest is, essentially, a film about death.
Look at the film’s final scene, which is tonally quite different from the movie: In it, Charlie stops by the road to help the bartender from the strip club, who is going on Christmas vacation with his family in an RV that has run out of gas. Charlie lets them siphon off his gas. Then, in a freak accident, he’s run over by the RV (just as he’s writing a piece of “As Wichita falls…” graffiti, suggesting that he’s been behind his own despair all this time). The driver of the RV and his kids don’t see that they’ve run over Charlie. “What was that?” the kids ask. “It was…nothing,” the driver replies.
But then, we see Charlie get up – a resurrection? – and get back into his car. There, we see that Pete is also in the car, having just awakened from his bender.
“Where are we?” Pete asks.
And Charlie smiles, for the first time in the entire movie, and says, “We’re in Heaven.”
“They got pancakes?”
“They’ve got everything.”
Reportedly, Ramis originally wanted to end the film with Charlie being run over, but was forced to add this final moment to assuage nervous execs and an anxious star. But while that original ending would have fit right in with the film’s overall tone, I’m still glad that he wound up with this final magical, perplexing scene – a beautifully mysterious ending to a beautifully mysterious movie. May the man who made it rest in peace.