Regarding the incongruities of The Ice Harvest, which I took a stab at diagnosing below, Erasmus at Praise of Folly says it better than I could and clarifies why I felt this movie was a queasy shade of noir:
The problem with this film is that it fundamentally mischaracterizes the question at the heart of film noir, which is “what does the decent man do in an immoral milieu?” Look at Sam Spade, Orson Welles’s Michael O’Hara in The Lady from Shanghai, or Glenn Ford’s Johnny Farrell in Gilda. All these men are terribly flawed, but try and stick to some essential core of decency despite the crew of vultures, con men, maniacs, and femmes fatales who surround them. Spade ends up sending a woman he loves up the river, O’Hara staggers away from a pile of corpses, and Farrell (unconvincing happy ending aside) tries to keep his loyalties in order, often perversely so.
Modern screenwriters and directors seem to fundamentally miss this moral point, being beglamoured by the bad guys and missing the core drama of the good-ish guy trying to escape the maelstrom of connivance, malice, and murder. John Dahl, whom Erasmus loves, gets this. His Red Rock West is the perfect modern noir. Nick Cage’s ex-Marine Mike Williams drifts into Red Rock, Wyoming, looking for a job. He tells a white lie, letting a bartender think he’s “Lyle from Texas,” for whom he’s got a job. This fib plunges him into a web of murderous hatred from which he keeps trying to escape but keeps getting pulled back in because of his essential decency. It’s a terrific film.
Dahl also made The Last Seduction in which he created Wendy Kroy, the most fatale of the femmes who’ve graced the silver screen. Dahl’s brilliance in this film is exposing Kroy as the most evil of manipulative sociopaths–she literally has no use for people other than as a means to money or other objects of desire. She kills, steals, and frames others for her crimes. And then, in the end, in a gut-punch of an ending which leaves you gasping, she gets away with it. Dahl plays with the complicity of the viewer in the anti-heroine’s misdeeds, then pulls the rug out from under you in that she, a real villain, doesn’t get any comeuppance. Dahl doesn’t do a wink and let you think, “Oh, that scamp!” He gives you a genuine look at the triumph of evil. The Last Seduction is another work of profound moral mediations in an utterly compelling dramatic form.
This brings us to The Ice Harvest which shares the central problem of most “neo-noir” films. It’s all bad guys, without any moral quandary, and hence no real drama or plot, only incident in the game of last-man-standing among a bunch of low-lifes. The audience is apparently supposed to have some dramatic sympathy for Charlie Arglist because…well, principally because he’s played by John Cusack, whose winning hang-dog manner is likeable. As La Demanska notes, however, the character is an empty vessel. There’s no there there. He’s simply the least vile of the individuals on offer.
The second major problem is the ending, in which Charlie’s the last man standing, ending up with 2.147 million dollars, if I remember correctly, with which he basically heads out of Wichita, “rescuing” his drunken friend Pete (entertainingly played by Oliver Platt) from his horrible marriage to Charlie’s ex-wife. This is not an act of virtue, not least because their leaving town leaves Charlie’s two children (already scarred by his no longer living with them) without either their father or their stand-in father. The larger problem is that Charlie is rewarded for his coming out on top of the deadly game of Who’s Got the Duffel Bag?
…So, in the end, The Ice Harvest fails to glean anything from its characters’ experience. Still, the movie is very, very well made, well-acted by a talented cast, and set in an environment that rarely sees on the big screen: winter on the Great Plains. It intrigued Erasmus enough that he went out and bought the novel from which it’s adopted. Erasmus suspects (or perhaps merely hopes) that the novelist has a better sense of what’s really at stake in great crime novels–not money, but souls.
That’s what I meant to say! There’s more, so be sure to hop over and read the whole thing.
P.S. This entire post written, cut, pasted, and coded with a twelve-pound cat lying on top of my right arm. Some animals, that is, may have been overindulged in the making of this post.