The Ice Storm

      Comments Off on The Ice Storm

Based upon the Rick Moody novel of the same name The Ice Storm (1997) was director Ang Lee’s second english language feature. Just as he had with Sense & Sensibility (1995), Lee immersed himself in a distinctly Western social and historical milieu, though this time trading the early nineteenth century for the mid-twentieth. Although some critics were skeptical of Lee’s ability to command these period specific dramas at the time, he proved himself wholly capable of making films in english that are just as good as the films he made in Taiwan.

The Ice Storm is a slow burning and gut wrenching drama about families on the brink of self-destruction. Lee coaxes subtle performances from his ensemble that creates an authentic sense of reality that is wonderfully juxtaposed by Frederick Elmes cinematography. Elmes shoots The Ice Storm like a pictorial feature in Architectural Digest; full of cold colors with an unforgiving starkness.

The Ice Storm is a triptych of moral investigations. First there are the Watergate hearings that occur in the background and serve as a moral battlefield between Wendy (Christina Ricci) and her father Ben (Kevin Kline). Then there are the dual interrogations of gender roles within the sexual sphere. For the adults this takes place in the context of Ben’s affair with Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver) and then later at a key party where the bounds of marriage reach their breaking point. As for the children sex becomes a kind of exercise in power wherein Wendy embraces that power while her brother Paul (Tobey Maguire) ultimately resists that power after a kind of cruel overexertion when he drugs Francis (David Kumholtz) and Libbets (Katie Holmes).

Paul’s strategy to incapacitate a romantic rival mirrors his father Ben’s own covert affairs, albeit far more maliciously. When Paul considers raping Libbets his internal debate in turn serves as a counterpoint to his sister Wendy’s seduction of Mikey (Elijah Wood) and later Sandy Carver (Adam Hann-Byrd). Interestingly the only member of the Hood family who is unable to exert any sexual power, negatively or otherwise, is Elena (Joan Allen). Within the dramatic economy of The Ice Storm this positions Elena as the opposite of Janey in terms of their roles as sexual beings.

Set on Thanksgiving Day, the closely knit relationships that have begun to fray take on a dramatic urgency derived from the audience’s sentimental expectations of a Rockwellian dinner. As the Hood and Carver families break apart like shrapnel caught in slow motion their ties are reinforced by Paul’s voiceover that begins and ends the film with comparisons to The Fantastic Four comic book. These superheroes are, quite literally, a family that fights crime in the form of supervillains like Dr. Doom and the Mole Man. While neither the Hoods nor the Carvers ever don tights they do hold steadfast to whatever intimacy they have in the face of a moral and ethical decay that is exemplified and symbolized by that villainous president Richard Nixon.

Is The Ice Storm the film one wants to watch after a turkey dinner with the whole extended family? Probably not. But unlike most Thanksgiving themed films, be it Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987) or Home For The Holidays (1995), The Ice Storm never gets caught up in any sentimentality. The Ice Storm is a frank and bitter reflection of what people and, by extension, families are capable of.