This is more than just another last-man-standing suitcase-full-of-money movie.
John Cusack plays an everyman, a lawyer who has sold out to the values of corporate corruption. With mixed feelings, he steals over two million dollars from the local mob on Christmas Eve, then plans with Billy Bob Thornton to make a break for it later on Christmas Day.
The mob boss (Randy Quaid) finds out and sends a hit man to get his money back, and the movie plot is about John Cusack trying to avoid getting killed by them.
The movie has been pretty much panned by almost every critic to review it, although Roger Ebert praised it enough for three stars. I loved it and loved the book before it. I realize that I am in a small minority in this regard.
What makes THE ICE HARVEST work for me is its noir blend of saltiness and satire, its mixture of comedy and karma.
The comedy here is based upon the hypocrisy of Christmas in this era of corruption and greed. All of the liars and killers and thieves in this movie talk about Christmas, about being home opening up presents with their kids. If you don't get that, I guess you won't see the comedy. It is nice that it is set in Wichita, Kansas, especially if you have read Thomas Frank's WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH KANSAS?
The opening graffiti above the urinal, "As Wichita Falls Falls, So Falls Wichita Falls," is a repeated line of jazz that caused an existential crisis for the film's French translator who had trouble distinguishing between "falls" as a noun and "falls" as a verb with a misplaced execution, Wichita Falls not being in Kansas but in Texas.
The author of this blood red graffiti is not revealed until the end of the film, at which time its coded karmic message seems clear, "what goes around, comes around," or "as ye sow, so shall ye reap."
The backstory segments are generous and entertaining, including a segment where the movie is discussed by book author Scott Phillips and the screenplay authors, Robert Benton and Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Russo, author of STRAIGHT MAN and EMPIRE FALLS.
John Cusack is endearing as an everyman who has gone too far with a fantasy and now is just trying to survive.
Billy Bob Thornton is menacing as Vic. His idea of winning is the American way, giving lip-service to religion and humanist values while embracing ruthless materialism.
Oliver Platt plays a jolly-faced loser, John Cusack's hapless doppeldinger, addicted to sexual conquests and alcohol, now married to Cusack's former wife. He seems to be an extention of the drunks who played in GROUNDHOG DAY.
Connie Nielsen vamps it up, a cross between Lauren Bacall and Veronica Lake. She's a tribute to a different era, like the femme fatale in WHO'S AFRAID OF ROGER RABBIT?, not really bad, just drawn that way. The book fills the character out more and speculates more on her background as an abused woman who learned how to survive, a hardened refugee from the war in Bosnia.
Randy Quaid is terrific as a capitalistic Christian mob boss murderer, sad to be doing business when he could be home celebrating Christ's birthday.
This movie has fun poking fun, with style and karma, with a moral and a motto. As Jon Stewart says, "IN GOD WE TRUST" is our motto, and we place it where it can be read on every dollar bill in this film, "right where Jesus would have wanted it."