John Cusack and Connie Nielsen in The Ice Harvest

If you’re interested in seeing an unusual film set at Christmas, and a good one, you might want to take a look at The Ice Harvest, which was released to theaters about a year ago and is now available on DVD. For more info on the film, here is my review from Breakpoint:

A Film of Second Chances

By S. T. Karnick

The Ice Harvest

Just as crime statistics are a good measure for gauging the health of a society, crime films can reveal common attitudes toward current social conditions—and the spiritual ideas behind them. The recent release of the movie The Ice Harvest is an interesting case in point.

Although presented in advertisements as something of a zany caper film, The Ice Harvest is, in fact, a modern film noir. The action takes place mostly at night, on Christmas Eve, in snowy Wichita, Kansas, which is presented as a dreary town typical of America today.

Like many modern crime films, The Ice Harvest presents an America rife with corruption but holding great possibilities for redemption. In these films, America is the Land of Second Chances.

Hence both money and religion are central to the story. The film takes place on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and tatty, commercialized Christmas imagery is prevalent. The film opens with shots of a nativity scene, as cold rain falls on the manger and drops of water fall on the statue of the infant Jesus as if they were tears. Images of ice and cold water recur throughout the film, and director Harold Ramis uses this to suggest the pervasiveness of corruption (it is like a natural phenomenon) and where it leads: death—literally, in the case of most of the central characters.

There ensues the typical film noir round of lies, bloodshed, and double-, triple-, and quadruple-crosses, with each of the participants puzzling over whom to trust least in any particular scene. The central characters are living thoroughly corrupt lives as they are introduced in the movie, but each retains the potential for good as well.

John Cusack plays Charlie Arglist, a mob lawyer serving an exceedingly violent smalltime hood, Bill Gerard (Randy Quaid), who runs an empire of strip clubs and other sleazy enterprises. Charlie and his partner in crime, Vic (Billy Bob Thornton) steal a couple million dollars from Gerard—a betrayal of trust that starts all the trouble.

As a result, numerous bonds of trust are broken. Charlie cannot trust Vic when the latter promises not to kill him, which leads to violence between them. Charlie’s trust of another central character leads to betrayal and murder. It is revealed that Vic had earlier broken a trust by embezzling money from Gerard. Charlie cannot even decide whether to trust Vic or a hit man whom Bill has sent out to kill them both. Gerard correctly realizes that he cannot trust his employees—but too late.

This is a common idea in films noir, and as is usual in such narratives, romantic relationships parallel the central plot in their treatment of the key theme. When we meet the first major character who is not part of Bill’s empire of crime, Charlie’s old friend Pete (Oliver Platt), the latter is roaring drunk in a bar, trying hard to find a woman with whom to cheat on his wife on Christmas Eve. Pete’s wife, we soon find out, has been cheating on him, just as she cheated on her previous husband, Charlie, throughout the last year of their marriage.

Little wonder, then, that the main characters want to escape this environment. Pete wants to leave his loveless marriage to an apparently cold, materialistic, woman. Vic’s wife is a dowdy creature whom he either kills or quite cheerfully allows to be killed. (We’re not sure which, though it is morally the same.) In the wake of his disastrous marriage, Charlie has no romantic relationship and is looking to start one with strip club manager Renata (Connie Nielsen), but he has difficulty opening up to her.

The subsidiary characters add to the depressing, corrupt nature of the social environment in the film: a bartender who brutally breaks the fingers of the boyfriend of one of the strippers (in revenge for the man having hit her); a vapid, moon-eyed young man in love with the stripper (a relationship that seems destined for disaster); Pete’s cold and materialistic in-laws; a police officer who continually truckles to Charlie in hope of getting in good with the mob; and other such human debris.

Charlie undertakes the theft because he wants to escape this world and not be a part of the corruption any more—but because the route he chooses is in itself wrong, he ends up becoming just as ruthless as those whom he originally wished to elude. The “ice harvest” of the film’s title is the wages of sin. Living under the law, Charlie slides inexorably into greater sins until he is fully confronted with their wages and realizes his need for repentance. As Paul wrote to the Galatians, “The law was put in charge to lead us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (Galatians 4:24).

Charlie does not state explicitly that he accepts Christ, but his repentance is definitely implicit in his actions. The film thus ends on a hopeful note, as Charlie and Pete finally do get their chance to escape, and another character embarks on the same path.

On its surface, The Ice Harvest presents a terribly bleak vision of America and an appropriately frightening view of life without God. The setting at Christmastime, however, strongly reinforces the sense that redemption is available. Everywhere the characters turn, there is sin and temptation—but there are also constant reminders of Christ.

After all, this is the land of second chances.

S. T. Karnick is an associate fellow of the Sagamore Institute for Policy Research and editor of The Reform Club blog.