Oh, sure—winter onscreen is almost invariably beautiful. Gently falling flakes. Cute lovers throwing snowballs at each other, maybe making a snowman on the lawn. Everyone looking adorable in fluffy, furry boots, their noses charmingly red.
But we all know winter ain’t like that. How come no one onscreen is ever keeling over from a heart attack after shoveling heavy snow for four hours? How come no one’s car is ever buried under a snowplow-created drift? How come no one’s ever losing a couple of toes to frostbite?
Actually, amid all the clichéd Christmas movies with all of their fake snow, there are a few movies that showcase winter at its wretched worst. You can rent them all for the next snow day, and sit inside feeling superior, because your life can’t possibly be as awful as the poor folks in these flicks.
There’s Frances McDormand’s pregnant cop in Fargo, for instance, who is bent over barfing into the Midwestern snow when she isn’t bent over looking for blood evidence preserved there. (I love how her shouted request for her husband to come outside one frigid morning and give her patrol car’s frozen battery a jump sounds so cheerfully routine, as if this happens every day. It probably does.) There are the pioneering travelers in the 19th-century setting of Ravenous, who face cannibalism over a lean Donner-party winter. Or there’s the high school soccer team of Alive, a much-less-fantastical, though fact-based, depiction of human desperation: They resort to eating their dead after crashing into the remotest snowy Andes.
A school bus slides off an icy road, plunging a small Canadian town into grief and mourning, right as The Sweet Hereafter opens—cheery! Thousands of people freeze to death in the bitter cold of the North Atlantic in Titanic (which doesn’t technically take place in wintertime—April 12 was early spring)—fun! Jack Nicholson goes snowcrazy when he’s winter-bound in a Colorado hotel as its off-season caretaker in The Shining—excellent! Tuxedo-clad flightless birds huddle together for collective warmth and to keep their individual precious eggs viable over the long, dark, Antarctic winter in March of the Penguins—inspiring! Luke Skywalker and Han Solo almost become rebel-cicles out on the frozen wastes of Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back—dead Tauntauns smell worse on the inside!
Oh, but it’s not all fun and games. Hearts can get broken in the middle of deepest, coldest, darkest winter. Bill Murray learns that in Groundhog Day, when he can’t stop a homeless old man from freezing to death in a lonely alleyway, no matter how many times he tries. Jim Carrey learns it when Kate Winslet throws him over again and again— even though they both wear cute hats to keep their ears warm—in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Ryan Gosling learns it in Lars and the Real Girl, when his Real Girl sex-doll “girlfriend” succumbs to long-term illness and he “succumbs” to the caring affections of his friends and family and neighbors in bleak Midwestern winter.
You need worse? How about the suburban angst of a weather-miserable Thanksgiving weekend in The Ice Storm? How about the bittersweet Christmas truce of World War I of Joyeux Noel, which may have inadvertently made the war even more horrific in the long run? How about the tragic “where does snow come from” tale of Edward Scissorhands, which explicitly takes the notion of snow and winter as beautiful and makes it something emblematic of hatred, small-mindedness and miserable conformity?
Depressed yet? If not, check out A Simple Plan, the Shakespearean-level crime tragedy that occurs in deepest winter, as if snow and cold could cover up suffering. Check out The Thing—either version—for an exploration of suspicion and paranoia that even South Poleintense darkness and bitterness cannot chill.
If nothing else, learn this lesson, from A Christmas Story: Your tongue will stick to a flagpole, should you be so dumb as to lick one in the run-up to the big winter holiday. Even if you’re triple-dog-dared to do so.