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It's Christmas Eve in icebound Kansas, and this year Charlie (John Cusack) might have something to celebrate. An attorney for the sleazy businesses of Wichita, Charlie and his unsavory associate (Billy Bob Thornton) have just embezzled two million dollars from a Kansas City mob boss (Randy Quaid). The real prize for Charlie is local strip club owner Renata (Connie Nielsen), but when they all get stuck in town by a whirling ice storm, everyone begins to wonder what's in Charlie's Christmas stocking. A comic thriller about thick thieves on thin ice, directed by Harold Ramis (Groundhog Day) and co-starring Oliver Platt.
 

 The Ice Harvest

I'm standing in City Lights bookstore in San Francisco with my old friend Richard Lonergan, urging him to read more Philip Roth, when he pulls a book off the same shelf and says, “Ever read any Richard Russo?” I left the bookstore with The Risk Pool, Nobody’s Fool, Straight Man and Empire Falls (which won the Pulitzer) and over the course of the next few months, I read every word of Russo’s published prose. Needless to say, I loved his work. Then irony of ironies, my agent sends me a screenplay written by Russo and the great Robert Benton, (we call him “Benton”), Academy Award®-winning writer of Kramer vs. Kramer, Places in the Heart and many other excellent films. The script was based on Scott Phillips’s wonderfully scurvy novel, The Ice Harvest, and reading the screenplay first and then the novel, it was apparent what Russo and Benton had accomplished. They took a very dark, lurid, deeply cynical and extremely funny tale of larceny and betrayal, and injected it with generous amounts of experience, wisdom and compassion, qualities that are constant in their own work, but rare in most of the scripts I read. Needless to say, I jumped at the chance to direct the movie.

Loosely described, the film takes us through one very eventful Christmas Eve in the life of a crummy Kansas lawyer, Charlie Arglist (John Cusack), who’s fallen from Grace and a comfy middle-class life and landed on a barstool in Wichita’s sleaziest strip clubs, where he is employed by the local flesh-peddler and pornographer, vice-lord Bill Guerrard (Randy Quaid). Charlie’s partner in crime and existential despair is Vic Cavanaugh (Billy Bob Thornton) and the object of his love/lust is the exotic strip club proprietress, Renata (Connie Nielsen channeling Lauren Bacall and Veronica Lake). Comic relief is provided by the shameless buffoonery of Charlie’s alcoholic best friend and ex-wife’s new husband Peter Van Heuten (Oliver Platt). All in all, the movie is a lump of coal in everyone’s Christmas stocking, a thumb in the eye of decency and “Red State” values, and a very entertaining crawl through some very dark and perversely seductive places.

Which brings me to the point: Throughout the making of the film, I was constantly forced to confront my own dark side—my gluttony, greed, and lust, my fascination with violence and pornography, my secret wish to use and abuse others, my perverse fantasy to be free of the moral and ethical constraints that make me so damn nice, caring, decent and civilized. And that’s what’s so great about being a filmmaker. I get to explore those aspects of my own nature, vicariously and safely, with actor/surrogates who take more of the real risks. Admittedly I do have tons of fun doing this. One day during pre-production, my then 14-year-old son was hanging out with me at our makeshift studio in suburban Chicago. Across the large stage area I could see a long line of attractive women waiting to see someone, so I asked the Assistant Director who they were. “They’re strippers,” he told me. “You have to watch them dance and pick the ones you want for the club scenes.” I sent my son home, and later heard this from my wife. When my son got home she asked if he had fun at my office. “Yeah,” he said. “What’s daddy doing?” she wondered. “Looking at strippers,” he told her. Of course, I’m so embarrassed by my own carnal desire that I couldn’t even enjoy the afternoon. I had to pretend that I was just objectively evaluating their choreography and acting ability. I know I made a lot of eye contact with the women because I didn’t know where else to look.

But I don’t want to oversell the prurient side of the film. For all its tawdry display of flesh, it’s surprisingly cool and un-erotic. Talking to John Cusack about his character, I remembered the word ‘anhedonia,’ which I understand to mean the inability to experience pleasure. And that’s where John’s character is when we meet him—burned out, soulless, bobbing like a cork on the rising and falling tides of cause and effect, the victim of his own valuelessness, blindly groping for warmth and security, but frozen by the failure of meaning in his life, ready to reap the cold comforts of The Ice Harvest. If I hadn’t been to the edge of that same abyss in my own life, I probably wouldn’t have identified so strongly with Charlie, but I’m guessing I’m not alone in that. And if it’s any comfort in this cold, cruel world, I still hold out the hope of redemption, for Charlie, for myself, and for the world.