John Cusack does comedy tinged with tragedy (or perhaps vice versa) really well. Generally, he seems to go for romantic tragedy rather than any other kind, but whenever he gets close to tongue-in-cheek noir, it seems, to me, to be a perfect fit.
In 2005's The Ice Harvest, Cusack is Charlie, a mob lawyer who has just teamed up with Vic (Billy Bob Thorton) to skim two million dollars off of his mobster boss and is poised to blow Wichita Falls, Kansas for good on Christmas Eve. He's leaving behind hateful ex-wife, two kids he doesn't seem to know what to do with, and a beautiful strip club owner who's always been just out of his reach. But before he can get free and clear with the cash - of course - everything starts going wrong.
The Ice Harvest is an intelligent, carefully-crafted neo-noir with a razor-sharp sense of humor and chillingly beautiful visuals that underscore the bleakness and futility of the characters' lives. It's a neo-noir that recreates a visual noir sensibility as successfully in modern color as the classics did in black and white. And, yet, the story thaws out enough in spots to make it something different than a typical hardboiled tale. Whether or not the story is as successful is probably personal taste. I generally prefer less redemption and no happy endings in my noirs. But dark humor never disappoints, and there is at least plenty of that.
As unexpectedly likeable and sympathetic as some of the men in the film are, the women in The Ice Harvest are just noir caricatures, and none are particularly redeeming or even very pleasant as people. From Charlie's cold, social climber ex-wife, to Vic's wife, whom we never even see alive but whom Vic obviously disdains as an inconsequential frump, to Renata, the film's main female character and an almost too-obvious throwback to the classic femme fatale. Renata, played by Connie Nielsen, looks and talks like Veronica Lake, and doublecrosses as viciously as any good noir dame should - and that's about it. Not many films noir are about the women as full-fledged characters, and this is definitely not one of the exceptions.
But there's still plenty to think about here when it comes to gender roles. Renata, similar to Charlie's ex, is unfeeling and ruthless - but she's smart, she knows what she wants and is willing to do what she needs to do to get it. She's the synthesis of everything each of the male characters is lacking. The film states plainly that neither Charlie nor Vic could have pulled off the robbery without each other because Vic needed Charlie's brains and Charlie needed Vic's courage. Pete, unhappily married to Charlie's ex, is also incomplete, desperate for an escape from family life and wanting to go out in a movie-like "blaze of glory," and bartender Sydney comically blames his mother for his anger issues. Even the mob boss, when he finally shows up at the end, is dissatisfied with his lot, and talks about how he should have gone into a different business (maybe one that didn't profit off of strip clubs and the sale of women's flesh). Every man is trying to play the role he's chosen or was chosen for him, by either circumstance or society or the women around him, and each is failing miserably at it.
One of the main reasons women are usually so one-dimensional in film noir is that film noir, sprung from postwar uncertainty as it was, always had a lot of questions about what the postwar masculinity was all about. In the latter half of the twentieth century, society wasn't so clear cut as it was before, and the male overcompensation typical of noir can be seen as an exercise in redefining both men and women for a modern world. If The Ice Harvest is any indication, the redefining, at least in some elements of modern culture, is still happening, and is still unresolved.