Ok, Erasmus is still underwater, metaphrorically speaking (and under snow, literally so), but Puella Nostra Chicagoensis has lured him out with her post of last evening about The Ice Harvest, a movie Erasmus caught on Thanksgiving.
Erasmus's feelings are somewhat similar to those of L'OGIC, but he'll put it this way: Erasmus enjoyed the excellent direction (particularly Ramis's use of humor within the dark story), the superb cast, and the terrific visuals. Where the movie fell apart entirely was the ending. Read no further if you haven't seen The Ice Harvest or The Last Seduction, which OGIC rightly invokes in comparison. Erasmus says: this movie is no comedy, now hie thee to Strong Badia.
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, malic, 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 quandry, 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?
As movie curmudgeon James Bowman put it in his 2001 review of Ocean's Eleven
As the movie came out over 40 years ago, I hope readers will forgive me if I reveal the ending of the original Ocean’s Eleven (1960), directed by Lewis Milestone and starring Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr, Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop and others who made up the famous Rat Pack. Having successfully robbed five Las Vegas casinos on New Year’s eve by putting their commando training to use, Sinatra’s Danny Ocean and his gang of eleven army buddies, all former paratroopers, conspire to smuggle the money out of town by hiding it in the coffin of one of their number who died (of natural causes) during the operation. But when his widow arrives in Vegas to arrange for shipment of the body back to San Francisco, she is persuaded by a compassionate local official to save the cost of transport by arranging for a funeral, with full military honors, on the spot. As his buddies listen to a eulogy based on the 23rd Psalm, one of them whispers to a neighbor, “What’s that noise?”
“Don’t you know? The deceased is being cremated.”
The surviving ten look at each other in horror and then settle down to listen to the rest of the sermon. The final scene shows them walking out into the bright sunshine of the Las Vegas strip.
I doubt if anyone would nowadays consider Ocean’s Eleven a great movie. It was an early harbinger of the Rat Pack’s self-indulgence that would eventually wreck the careers and lives of every one of its members save Sinatra. But at least they knew how a movie ought to end. It is true there was still at the time (just about) the Hays Code, whose first principle was that “No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.”
Of course this commandment was routinely broken by the best of the films noirs of the 40s and 50s, but even they did not have the temerity to show criminals profiting from their crime. Not because, I believe, their producers feared prosecution but because this was merely a codification of what everybody knew anyway, which is that it is not the lot of man on earth to get away, by sheer cleverness, with the fame and the girl and the money. We can all be successful for a while, but in the end no one gets out alive. To remind us of this essential fact of the human condition is what art was created for.
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. Erasmus apologizes that he hasn't read it yet, but as said, sub nivo sum.
The Ice Harvest non placet, though it's very well-done.