1. The Weather Man (2005)
Screenwriter Steve Conrad attended Northwestern University, located 30 minutes from downtown Chicago, so it’s safe to presume the Florida native’s time enduring bitter Midwestern winters informed The Weather Man. Gore Verbinski’s film about a TV weather man perfectly captures the Windy City’s winter gloom: the relentlessly gray sky, the ubiquitous slush that lingers after snowfall and makes everything dirty, and the general hassle and psychological weariness caused by oppressively cold weather. A gray numbness hangs heavily over The Weather Man, making it the anti-Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
2. Downtown Owl (2008)
Chuck Klosterman’s first foray into fiction cribs a lot of things from his real life (and most of the plot mechanics of Kent Haruf’s Plainsong), most notably the location. The North Dakota-raised author invites his reader to Owl, North Dakota, to follow the inexplicably connected lives of three different individuals: a senior man, a depressed high school jock, and a floozy history teacher. Once invested in the characters, a deadly blizzard ensues, literally. Only one character survives, as the other two are killed, one from exposure and the other from carbon monoxide poisoning in her car. Although Klosterman’s motives here are unclear, he does an excellent job portraying just how harsh a Midwestern winter can be.
3. The Day After Tomorrow (2004)
In this cautionary tale of catastrophic climate change, the world is battered by “super storms” of unprecedented scale and violence, and New York comes in for a particularly severe meteorological thrashing. It starts with a tsunami that floods the entire island of Manhattan, and then the deep freeze sets in. The events are outlandish—a sort of hardcore weather porn—but when the biting cold hits the New York Public Library where a few survivors have taken refuge, there’s a relatable, down-to-earth moment. As two refugees struggle to make it back to their improvised home base, one of them screams, “Close the door!” That’s a line that rings familiar to anyone who’s huddled under a blanket while some interloper lets in a gust of polar-vortex wind. Unfortunately, it proves ineffective in keeping a new ice age from consuming the library, and the heroes have to come up with other ways to beat the cold. Maybe a scarf?
4. Fargo (1996)
Joel and Ethan Coen grew up in a suburb of Minneapolis, a background that surely informed their wood-chipper classic Fargo. While they may have gone delightfully overboard on the accents and the “Minnesota nice,” they didn’t need to exaggerate the harsh, seemingly endless Midwest winter. In the world of Fargo, an empty, snow covered parking lot is the perfect stand-in for the hopelessness of the season (not to mention the hopelessness of arranging your wife’s kidnapping), and scraping the ice off your windshield is the height of futility. Credit the Coens’ longtime cinematographer, Roger Deakins, for making the film’s landscape seem desolate, gorgeous, and as alien and barren as the planet Hoth.
5. The Ice Harvest (2005)
In the comic noir The Ice Harvest, Wichita lawyer John Cusack steals a couple million dollars from his gangster boss (Randy Quaid) on Christmas Eve, thinking that the holiday will give him plenty of time to put some distance between himself and his old life, then discovers that the iced-over roads make it impossible for him to flee. Trapped in a town where he has just gone from being mostly unwelcome to probably being marked for death, he waits for the thaw to come, while indulging in such holiday activities as watching his partner in crime (Billy Bob Thornton), who has murdered his own wife and intends to kill Cusack, slowly sinking into the waters of a frozen lake.
6. Groundhog Day (1993)
Bill Murray is miserable when he and his local TV crew show up in the town of Punxsutawney to cover the annual Groundhog Day festivities, and Punxsutawney is a picture of gloom to match. It may not be quite the Podunk hellscape that Murray makes it out to be, but it is cold, dreary, and marked by the fatigue of a town that has been stuck in winter for months. That’s why the local citizens need the cheery pageantry of a rodent’s annual moment in the spotlight. It gives them the boost they need to soldier through to springtime. Murray is infused with none of that hope and optimism, and sometimes, it’s hard to blame him—like in one recurring moment when he steps off the sidewalk into a pothole filled with slush. You can practically feel the frigid water seeping through Murray’s sock as an old high school classmate chortles with delight. It’s true, that first step really is a doozy.
7. Running Scared (1986)
In his pre-Hollywood life, director Peter Hyams worked as a newscaster, which included a stint at Chicago’s CBS affiliate that undoubtedly included some long winter days. When he shot the Gregory Hines and Billy Crystal buddy-cop action-comedy Running Scared, he staged it during the gloomiest, grayest, grossest time of the year, which directly played into the motivations of Hines and Crystal’s characters: Worn down by the stresses of the job and life in Chicago, the duo decide to move to the Florida Keys after vacationing there. The sunny liveliness of the scenes in Florida contrast starkly with the rest of Running Scared, where a gray layer of grime seems to cover the camera lens in every scene.
8. Max Payne (2001)
Everything about the Max Payne video game series is about heightened reality—slow-motion gunfights, over-stylized neo-noir narration, a main character who occasionally hallucinates and pops more pills than a rock star. The first game set the tone early on by setting its events during the worst snowstorm to hit New York in years, shutting the majority of the city indoors and leaving Max to walk the streets alone. With the snow constantly falling and covering all the buildings, and the light crunch of snow present in every outdoor scene, the endless night of Max’s crusade takes on an elemental quality. Max is alone and friendless, and the environment reflects that with its only warmth coming from muzzle flares. Plus, the deathlike nature of the setting is easy pickings for Max’s internal monologue, as he offers up such gems as “In their light, the falling snow was dead white before the darkness ate it up,” “A bomb went off, turning snow into liquid gold,” and “Snow fell like ash from post-apocalyptic skies.” As much fun as the gunplay is, it’s a cold world that Max fights through, and the game never lets players forget it.
9. Indigo Prophecy (2005)
Even with a convoluted plot involving Mayan shamans, artificial intelligence, and telekinetic powers, Indigo Prophecy’s spookiest aspect may be the never-ending winter it unleashes on New York. With the temperatures falling every day, denizens of the Big Apple first hunker down, then flee in terror as the cold becomes unbearable to everyone who isn’t a robot or magic. The title of the game was originally Fahrenheit, but was changed following the release of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 the year before. The original title is telling: With all the magical battles that happen in the game, the developers knew the how central the bitter winter was to the story.
10. The French Connection (1971)
The opening scenes of The French Connection cut between summery Marseilles, where the chief drug smuggler (Fernando Rey) enjoys the fruits of his illegal enterprise, and Brooklyn, where the undercover-detective hero Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) chases down a suspect while dressed in a Santa Claus suit. Popeye is cold, fierce, and bleak—the city personified. A trendsetting, Oscar-winning hit, the movie established the ’70s trend of depicting New York as an icebox with brass knuckles, especially in a scene in which the pissed-off cops are staked out in a doorway and have to endure the cold and hunger pangs, while watching their quarry take lunch in a fine restaurant.
11. The Ice Storm (1997)
Ang Lee’s adaptation of Rick Moody’s novel The Ice Storm is set in the prosperous New Canaan area of Connecticut in the Watergate year of 1973, when the Thanksgiving break gives families the chance to come together and share their dissatisfaction with the state of the country, their own lives, and each other. When the already frigid weather calcifies into a major ice storm, it’s as if the coldness everyone feels eating away at their hearts has blossomed into a new Ice Age. In the climax, one character wanders outside, becomes intoxicated by the visual beauty of the winter-postcard landscape, and is killed by a fallen power line. Happy holidays!
12. The Time Traveler’s Wife (2003)
Chicagoan author Audrey Niffenegger put a lot of real Chicago locations and specifics into her debut novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife, but the name-dropping on locations like the (sadly now-defunct) ice-cream parlor Zephyr or the Aragon Ballroom don’t come across as authentically as her description of a lethal Chicago winter. Her protagonist can’t control his leaps through time, and can’t take clothes or possessions with him when he leaps. So when he spontaneously teleports to Grant Park in the dead of winter, it’s a life-threatening event. Niffenegger describes his experience with the clarity of someone who knows exactly how deserted public areas get in Chicago when the real chill descends. In her words, the city comes across as beautifully and dramatically sere, yet so inimicable to life that the protagonist (and his wife, responding to his distress call and driving to pick him up) feel like they’re the only people in a bitter, harsh ice world. It isn’t a momentary chill, either: Exposure leaves the protagonist permanently disabled. The whole sequence underlines that Chicago winters are not to be taken lightly.
13. A Simple Plan (1998)
The first trick in any story about a law-abiding protagonist who chooses to commit a crime is to make sure the audience understands the decision. In adapting his own novel to the screen, writer Scott B. Smith quickly established how Hank Mitchell (Bill Paxton) was a smart man stuck in a dead-end job with a baby on the way. But the real key was the weather: Through Sam Raimi’s simple, unforced direction, suburban Minnesota is transformed into a bleak, unsparing arctic hell. The miles of snow in every direction, the messy streets, and the leafless, skeletal trees form a perfect backdrop to escape from, as well as a constant reminder of the consequences of failure. It’s a cold, cold world, and one wrong turn on the ice can change everything.