Larceny, Corruption, and Murder: THE ICE HARVEST’s Recipe for a Merry Christmas
25 December 2011
Cinematically speaking, a black comedy is a film that finds humor in grim material, particularly, but not exclusively, death. Furthermore, black comedies, typically, mock difficult topics, like grief and loss, by treating them flippantly and/or absurdly. Harold Ramis’ The Ice Harvest (2005) is a quintessential black comedy which not only takes aim at death and loss, but also Christmas. The film exemplifies the darkly witty genre by consistently mocking these gruesome and sinister topics of which the film’s narrative is composed.
The Ice Harvest takes place on Christmas Eve when Charlie (John Cusack), an attorney for a major mobster in Wichita, Kansas, steals two million dollars from his boss. Charlie leaves the money with his partner in crime, Vic (Billy Bob Thornton), a dodgy businessman; however, the relationship between Charlie and Vic is unstable because Vic’s evasive behavior leaves Charlie questioning whether or not he placed his trust in a reliable partner. As Charlie wanders around the local strip clubs of Wichita, waiting for the green light to flee town with his share of the money, he spends time with the sexy and surreptitious Renata (Connie Neilsen), as well as Pete (Oliver Platt), Charlie’s ormer best friend and town drunk who ran away with Charlie wife, a few years prior. In part, the film explores how the underbelly of society might spend their Christmas Eve. By the end of his eventful and character-defining night, Charlie finds out the hard (and painful) way how much two million dollars actually costs.
The plot and characters of The Ice Harvest are cliché and predictable, which is exactly what makes it a perfect black comedy. How many films are there that follow one good-hearted character who falls into the corruption of the world around him/her, leaves his/her morals behind, and tries erroneously to push his/her way ahead in the world? Countless. Moreover, this character is always, within the film’s narrative, punished somehow for his/her disregard of the law and social expectations. In a nutshell, this is The Ice Harvest. All things considered, Charlie is a good man. His less-than-honorable clients tempt Charlie with bait, to the tune of two million dollars, which he cannot resist. By the end, Charlie’s compromised morals do leave him richer, but also desolate. Nevertheless, in unyielding, sarcastic hilarity, The Ice Harvest relishes in the clichés and openly mocks its overdone narrative and the overdramatized topics contained in it. The Ice Harvest cannot be defined by the story it tells; The Ice Harvest is defined by how it tells the story.
One of the film’s strongest, and therefore funniest, segments, exemplifying the black comedy genre is basks in, occurs when Charlie and Vic attempt to dump Roy (Rick Starr)–an associate of the man they stole the two million dollars from who becomes suspicious of their heist—off a dock to his death in the icy waters below. By the time the men are en route to dump Roy, Vic has already cut Roy’s thumb off and stuffed him into a trunk. Yet, Roy is still very much alive in the trunk and armed with a loaded gun. While driving in the Mercedes to the dock—yes, the Mercedes, because it is some much more spacious than the Lincoln—Vic becomes disgruntled with Roy’s repeated attempts to convince Charlie to free him, as well as Roy repeated death threats toward Vic. (That’s right, Roy, who is stuffed in a trunk without a thumb, is still threatening Vic as though Roy has any power whatsoever…hilarious.) What’s even more hilarious about this is that Roy knocks on the trunk before making his threats, as though he wants to get Charlie and Vic’s attention and he doesn’t think his yelling will do it. Vic repeatedly warns Roy to stop talking, and even tells Charlie to, “Pay no attention to the man in the trunk,” but confesses that he does not remember which end of the trunk Roy’s head is at, so he hesitates shooting at the trunk. Finally, irate, Vic turns around and shoots. When Roy ceases to yell, Vic comments, “Well, I guess that was the head-end, huh?”
In the brief ride to the dock the film transforms what could be a tense, disturbing scene into one of the wittiest in the film. The audience is not disturbed by the gruesome nature of the scene because the film itself is not taking it seriously, particularly through Roy’s knocking and relentless yelling, and Vic’s commentary; the entire scene is completely ridiculous.
Furthermore, once the men reach the dock the scene becomes even more wickedly funnier. The men push the trunk slowly down the dock. Of course, because the film is constantly mocking its own narrative, the dock begins to break. In a drama that broken dock would symbolize the destruction of morality and heighten the scene’s tension, but in The Ice Harvest the broken dock is another clichéd incident as these two piteous characters, Charlie and Vic, attempt their preposterous antics. Because the dock is not unstable, Vic decides to lift the truck up on its side. As soon as this happens, two shots are fired: one straight through the trunk and into Vic’s side, and the other through the truck’s lock. Roy miraculously fired these two amazing shots from inside the trunk, which forces the trunk to swing open, freeing Roy. The Ice Harvest totally owns that these astonishing shots are completely absurd. Vic, taking one look at Roy and casually realizing he has been shot, says, “God damn, Roy. That was just blind-fucking-luck you asshole.” The film does not try to build anxiety by rapid cutting, an intensifying musical score, or dramatic (over)acting; the moment is very dry, which makes it very funny.
Roy, emerging from the trunk, continues to threaten Vic’s life, even though his is down one thumb, unable to stand up straight after being stuffed in a trunk for hours, and badly beaten. Vic, still not fully acknowledging he is shot, reminds Roy he has not bullets left in his gun. Roy tries anyway, but, alas, Vic was right. Vic then aims his own gun at Roy and shots him in the chest. Again, there is no screaming or intensified music; Roy simply straightens his body up and freezes in that position on the dock. For a moment, the film seems to pause. Roy’s reaction to being shot is so curious that the audience cannot be horrified; viewers are too busy contemplating whether he is ever going to keel over. Once again, and in perfect timing, Vic says, “You’re dead, Roy. Don’t stand there pretending that you’re not.” With that Roy falls over and breaks the entire dock on his way down.
The subsequent events of Roy’s fall only perpetuates more laughs and chaos as the film catapults towards its climax. However, the scene of the men driving to the dock and then standing on the dock is quintessential black humor. A man dies, another is shot, all in the dark of a cold night on an isolated dock in Wichita, Kansas, but the scenes are hilarious because the film never misses and opportunity to highlight the absurdity of the situation.
The film takes what could be a somber (but relentlessly overdone) drama and turns it into a scathing farce. The fact that the film takes place on Christmas, Jesus’ birthday (which is mentioned more than one in the film), makes it funnier. The night when peoples’ values are supposedly their highest, and their love for mankind strongest is the night Charlie steals millions of dollars, loiters strip clubs, and kills people. It’s perfect. Nothing is safe from The Ice Harvest; the film takes aim and mocks everything in reach.