"They say there's no such thing as the perfect crime.."
So, it’s winter again. And like every winter, there comes that point when we start to wish that it would just end. Even if you love it. Even if you drink hot cocoa by the gallon, and ski 32 hours a week. Even if we’ve only had one snowstorm and it was 50 degrees yesterday. We still want that change to happen. Which brings me to Groundhog Day (Though I started writing this around the last day of February, and posting it in April. I was under the impression he saw his shadow. So I went back to bed). On the occasion of Groundhog Day I always watch the 1993 Harold Ramis film of the same name, because it is simply a phenomenal film and I am a walking cliche. I am not going to write about Groundhog Day, however, there is another holiday themed film by the same director I would like to discuss, The Ice Harvest (2005). And while there are many other films directed by the late Mr. Ramis that may be better, The Ice Harvest and Groundhog Day fit nicely into a February 2nd double feature. Both are philosophical, darkly comedic, and thought provoking. Before I begin, let me be honest, Ice Harvest is no match for Groundhog Day creatively. This doesn’t negate it from being a an interesting film.
Wichita, Kansas, Christmas Eve. Charlie (John Cusack) and Vic (Billy Bob Thornton) have just ripped off their boss. “Are we really doing this?” Charlie says after the deed is done. This is more than just stealing some pens and a few post-it notes, however, they’ve stolen 2,147,000 dollars from a known mob boss. A mob boss, who will send people to kill them when he finds out. But it’s the holidays, so no worries. They’re pretty sure that Bill Guerrard is at home sipping eggnog, and by the time he finds out what’s happened they will be long gone. If not for a ice storm.
Apart from his immediate regret, Charlie is prepared to wait out the storm.“Just act normal for a few hours and we’re home free, ok?” Vic assures Charlie. But what is normal? Whereas Vic is calm and collective, Charlie is fidgety and most likely drunk. Charlie is more of an ideas man. Perhaps he’s thinking too much when he heads to the Sweet Cage, after he takes a nice icy spin and a brief encounter with Officer Tyler. At the Sweet Cage Sidney, the bartender and loving son, makes Charlie a drink with an umbrella upon his request. So much for acting normal. In walks Renata, a sight which forces Charlie to put down his drink for a moment. After some discussion about prospective changes in the law, Charlie promises to help Renata solve a small problem she’s having with a local politician. Again, out of character. Charlie makes a break for it after Roy Gelles shows up looking for him. He heads on over to another strip club. We get the sense that Charlie’s work was not in defending Guerrard against toxic waste dumping lawsuits. There he waves a stage fee for the dancers, which makes them happy, and makes the bartender question his motives. “It’s Christmas, It’s God’s Birthday.” is his defence. The real reason he is at the club is to snag a photo that gives Renata power over the local councilman. Once again Roy Gelles shows up looking for Charlie. Yes, you have to use his whole name, it’s more menacing. This prompts Charlie to contact Vic. Unfortunately his phone broke when he slipped on some ice.
Charlie must have a personal confrontation with Vic about the Roy Gelles issue. An issue Vic doesn’t seem too worried about as he finishes his dinner. Suspicions arise, when Vic gets a call from a woman. It’s ok Charlie, it was just his wife. Then who was he having dinner with?
Charlie can’t find out because he’s asked to help his friend, and ex’s current husband, get home. Pete is in a surly state of drunkenness. He makes Charlie have a drink with him before they go and makes it known to everyone in the bar that Charlie is a “mob lawyer”. The ride home takes the pair back to Pete’s in-laws (also Charlie’s), and then full circle back to the bar they started at. There will be some vomit, some crotch punting and another run-in with Officer Tyler. We are also introduced to Charlie's philosophy on life. After recounting a tale of his father and his twin brother’s deaths he bestows upon Pete his wisdom, ‘It is futile to regret. You do one thing, or the other...same results.”
Charlie drops off Pete's and picks up his ex wife’s Mercedes, headed for the Sweet Cage to give Renata her present. She in turn has a message for Charlie from Vic to meet him at the Velvet Touch. She also can’t help but catch on that Charlie is hiding something, which probably involves money.
At the Velvet Touch Charlie doesn’t find Vic. He does find a finger in a clamp though. Charlie’s night just got more interesting. Thinking it might be Vic’s finger he heads for his house.
Roy Gelles finally gets to have a few words with Charlie, unfortunately those are muffled words, as he is stuffed in trunk. Vic intends to drop him at the bottom of a lake so that he can take some pleasure in his slow death. A little overkill, which Charlie should rightly notice. With muffled tiny seeds of doubt placed by Roy Gelles, Charlie is beginning to doubt if he is going swimming once they reach the lake as well. In a scene that hints of Diabolique, the two men drag the trunk to the pier. They should have taken the warning to keep off. Roy doesn’t give up that easily. After shooting Vic though the trunk, he manages to stand up. Vic shoots him, all while Charlie is watching in total befuddlement. “You’re dead Roy, quit pretending you’re not.” But it’s too late for Vic. With Roy’s death the pier breaks and the two men are thrown into the water. Lucky break for Charlie. So, Charlie has the money and no one to share it with. Perhaps the lovely Renata will be willing to take some off his hands. Oh wait, Charlie doesn’t have the money. Vic didn’t have it on him when they went to the lake. Now Charlie has no money, he’s been up all night, and has killed someone. Not exactly “It’s a Wonderful Life” kinda film. Renata seems to still want to run away with him, at least he has that.
Just one more hurdle to freedom, his boss. Back at the Sweet Cage Renata and Bill are waiting for Charlie. Bill is not happy, he is supposed to be at home watching his kids open presents. Needless to say, he doesn’t make it back for present time. Like most actions in the film, Charlie steps hap hazardly into the killing of multiple people.
So why is this my go to February 2nd double feature. Firstly, both films are different. One is a comedy whereas, the other a thriller. Both start different actors with different acting styles. But it’s there similarities that really makes them a great double feature, other than the fact that Harold Ramis directed both films.
Charlie is trapped, on Christmas Eve no less. Not trapped by a wife that’s cheating on him, or kids that don’t love him anymore. No, he is literally confined to one location by the weather. Like that of the snowstorm that wasn’t supposed to happen in Groundhog Day, Charlie can’t leave until the next day. And much like Groundhog Day what happens during that one day has a profound affect on the character. Repetition can either give your life meaning or slowing take it away. Charlie is finding that the latter is true. He just wants to leave Wichita with his half of the money, but is forced to live out one more daily routine. Something Charlie has a little trouble doing. Then again, it is God’s birthday, so what’s the harm in acting a little abnormal? Within this routine lies Charlie’s real trap, choice. He might not be the best at making choices. About the only good choice he makes is borrowing his ex wife’s Mercedes. Whereas Phil Connors is given endless repetition of choice without any consequence, Charlie is faced with the fact that as dawn approaches his choices are beginning to catch up with him. From the moment he walks into the Sweet Cage, turns down a beer and tells Reneta he can help her out with her problem he is questioned about his motives. This doesn’t seem to phase him. Only with the arrival of Roy does Charlie’s nervous tension returns. Which brings us to one of the themes of both Groundhog Day and Ice Harvest, regret. While Phil regrets some of the actions he takes, he knows that there is no tomorrow,and that none of this will matter when the clock strikes 6 a.m. Charlie, on the other hand, feels the twinge of regret. Yet as he explains to his friend Pete “it is futile to regret, you do one thing, or the other. Same result.” This world view would explain Charlie’s ability to go forward with actions that may in fact kill him. I mean, he’s going to die eventually anyway.
Spattered throughout the film in red sharpie is the phrase “As Wichita Falls, So Falls Wichita Falls.” We see it on the bathroom wall, a payphone,and eventually the back of a camper. It’s revealed that this was written by Charlie. But why does he write this all over town, other than a homage to a Pat Metheny and Lyle Mars album with a very similar title? I think this phrase is central to Charlie’s world view regarding choice and regret. That we are all doomed to the same inevitable fate. And that no matter what you do it won’t make a difference. Vic has no problem making choices. He’s chosen the right partner, a man with no backbone. The only thing he needs to do is get out of town, and make sure that his wife won’t talk. Then get rid of his partner in a nice double cross. But Vic didn’t count on Roy planting the seeds of doubt in Charlie’s mind, which seal his fate.
The Ice Harvest has all the trappings of a neo-noir film. It is grounded in a work of pulp fiction, and though it steers away from the novel in some elements, it remains true to the thematic nature story (I would recommend reading the novel if you have a chance. It is darkly comedic). Characters, set pieces, and plot developments are nestled in a the seedy underworld. Or what some would consider seedy. As Charlie says to Vic “I sue people for a living, you sell them porn, Roy hurts people”. This is only reiterated by Pete’s insistence not to mess with Charlie because he’s “big time mob lawyer”. Even the honest characters have anger issues. Like many noir films, there really isn’t a “good guy” that we are supposed to be rooting for to win. It’s more or less, which character is more empathetic. We want Charlie to win, while in reality he is a thief and murderer. Unlike that of Phil Conners journey, Charlie is not aiming to be a better person. Perhaps even the opposite. The Ice Harvest also contains a key noir element, the femme fatale. Renata works on Charlie at a very slow pace. So slow you may not even realize, as he didn’t, her villainy until it is almost too late. She is playing both Vic and Charlie, waiting for one of them to bump off the other. This plan works pretty well, until Charlie decides to look in her closet. You should have changed bags Renata.
In the end, both protagonists from Groundhog Day and The Ice Harvest reach their goals. Phil finds love and gets out of his never ending cycle, while Charlie finds money and removes himself from the his daily routine. To the victor goes the spoils, pancakes.
Check out my photographic posts about this film on Tumblr here
The Distracted Blogger
I watch movies. I write about them here. I watch more movies. I get nothing else done.
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