Dir. Harold Ramis. US. 2005. 88mins.

After the fairly impersonal work he delivered on hisrecent studio assignments (Analyze That, the Bedazzledremake), Harold Ramis returns to the offbeat,anti-social observational humour his talent thrives on with The Ice Harvest.

Told in a clipped, rakishstyle and suffused in a low-key sleaze, it makes for an entertainingly breezy,minor key work that plays best as a series of incidental pleasures rather thana sustained achievement.

Capably made but shallow, itis a little too malicious in its freeform cynicism and has an insouciance andpalpably grubby underside (Ramis has always been anunderrated visual stylist, probably because he works in comedy).

Adapted by Robert Benton andRichard Russo from a novel by Scott Phillips set over a toxic Christmas Evenight, the movie mirthlessly tracks the comically absurd, increasingly mortalcomplications of an embezzlement scheme carried out by two lower-depth Kansashustlers.

In mood and temperament itevokes certain Coen brothers' standards such as Blood Simple, Fargo, or given the presence of Billy Bob Thornton, The Man Who Wasn't There. As acommercial property - it opens in the US on Nov 23 - it is almost certain toenjoy measured arthouse success and on upscaleprogrammes rather than through popular, widely exhibited release.

The script elides over theforensic details of the heist or character exposition, locating pretty muchevery motivation in the criminally inclined players' addiction to greed,avarice and betrayal.

Wichita-based fixer andlawyer Charlie (Cusack) plots with Vic (Thornton) topull the perfect crime, relieving Kansas City mobster Bill Guerrard(Quaid) of $2.1m of his ill-gotten profits.

Advised by Vic to "actnormal" before embarking on their planned Christmas morning getaway, Charlieprogresses through an alcohol-fuelled waking nightmare of quiet desperation andanxious breakdown.

The story is seen entirelyfrom Charlie's distracted, off-kilter viewpoint. Trapped by his instincts tohelp out those in need, like beautiful stripclubentrepreneur Renata (Nielsen), or rescue fromrecurring embarrassment the friend (Platt) now married to his former wife, hissudden altruism causes much suspicion. He is then gripped by paranoia afterdiscovering a Mob enforcer is looking for him.

As the body count mounts, soCharlie must find out if his slinky conspirator is orchestrating a largerswindle against him.

With cinematographer Alar Kivilo and productiondesigner Patricia von Brandenstein, Ramis creates a strange, lonely universe of desultory stripclubs and massage parlours.

The script, filled as it iswith Hitchcockian allusions to blackmail photographsor the difficulty of disposing of a corpse, is more effective at the acerbic,pungent dialogue and tough guy bravado than characterisation and plot detail.(The demise of two supporting characters comes off as cruel and thoroughlyunnecessary.)

Cusack is distinctive and sharp, his body movements andgestures signifying a mounting dread and unease, but Thornton and Nielsenregister more as spectral presences than believable, fully embodied figures. Cusack and Thornton have a great rapport, but the movieneeds more tension, more give-and-take, between them.

The Ice Harvest is a movie of moments that if it lacks true imagination and heft,nevertheless closes with a sadism, cruelty and barbed satire that carry awounding, perverse sting.

Production companies
Focus Features
Bona Fide Productions

US distribution
Focus Features

Executive producers
Robert Benton
Richard Russo
Glenn Williamson

Albert Berger
Ron Yerxa

Alar Kivilo

Robert Benton
Richard Russo, from the novel by Scott Phillips

Production design
Patrizia von Brandenstein

Lee Percy

David Kitay

Main cast
John Cusack
Billy Bob Thornton
Connie Nielsen
Oliver Platt
Randy Quaid