As anyone who's ever spent a winter in the Midwest knows, an ice storm can turn it into a wasteland. Water freezes mid-drip, and flat, impassable terrain stretches as far as the eye can see. Only the foolish and the brave do anything but stay put; both stand an equal chance of getting somewhere. John Cusack looks out over this kind of wasteland in the opening scene of The Ice Harvest, and while he wonders in a voiceover narration about the possibility of pulling off a perfect crime, his expression appears to be puzzling over deeper matters. Fortunately, the Harold Ramis-directed, Robert Benton-and-Richard Russo-scripted film has the good sense to drop the voiceover and let the drama play out between Cusack's look of hooded self-loathing and the environment that reflects it so well.
Of course, a perfect crime—or a crime, anyway—does play a part here. Cusack stars as a Wichita lawyer with well-known mafia ties who, in partnership with strip club owner Billy Bob Thornton, decides to walk away with over two million dollars in mob cash shortly before Christmas. Though Cusack attempts to keep a low profile, circumstances beyond the weather conspire against him. There's Oliver Platt, for one, playing an old buddy of Cusack who's now married to Cusack's ex-wife. He's decided to spend the night getting wasted and what remains of Cusack's good nature compels him to take care of him. Then there's the cupid-lipped strip club manager played by Connie Nielsen, who quietly steers him into performing a dangerous favor for her.
Just as there's more than a hint of a classic femme fatale to Nielsen's character, there's more than a suggestion of classic noir to Ramis' film, despite the substitution of wide-open spaces and sprawling suburban ranch homes for back-alleys and dimly lit apartments. But it also bears the clear stamp of Ramis, Russo, and Benton. Ramis is at his best when dealing with men facing a soul-defining crisis, and he finds plenty to work with in Russo and Benton's script, which offers Russo's trademark blend of colorful characters and slow-building dilemmas. The Ice Harvest finds them all operating in top form in as dark a territory as they've ever explored. Cusack, in a performance that makes it easy to overlook the succession of forgettable roles he's taken on lately, makes Bill Murray in Groundhog Day look positively sunny and as the film takes him through one reminder of past mistakes after another, it's hard to tell if he's learning anything or not. "I can't do my life, man," Platt tells him at one point and though Cusack says nothing, he makes it clear that he understands and shares a desire to walk away. There's a cost for that, however, one that The Ice Harvest measures in grim laughs, hard questions and, ultimately, blood.