Director: Ang Lee
Stars: Joan Allen (Elena), Kevin Kline (Ben), Sigourney Weaver (Janey), Christina Ricci (Wendy), Tobey Maguire (Paul), Elijah Wood (Mikey), Jamey Sheridan (Jim), Katie Holmes (Libbets)
When the topic of conversation switches (as it so often does) to which movie represents American cinema’s most cutting exposé of suburbia’s dark underbelly, it’s always American Beauty and Blue Velvet that get trotted out first. Of course, it’s hard to argue with Blue Velvet, but Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm still feels remarkably overlooked. 15 years on and people tend to fall into two categories on this one; the 95% who’ve never heard of it, and the 5% who love it.
Lee has more ‘obvious’ films to examine in his repertoire of course, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Brokeback Mountain being by far his most celebrated. And it’s a career of diversity, from the big budget comic book tantrums of Hulk to the war-torn erotic melodrama of Lust, Caution. But for 5% of us, The Ice Storm is – and will likely remain – his masterpiece.
Set amid a neighbourhood of prosperous middle class families in Connecticut in the 1970s, it charts a Thanksgiving weekend in which the façade between two families over an affair breaks down, as well as the burgeoning sexual misadventures of their children. The titular ice storm hits, echoing the emotional chilliness between the adults, and when tragedy strikes, the thaw brings catharsis. If that sounds positively awful then relax; it isn’t. The Ice Storm is not an emotionally wrought kitchen sink melodrama, but rather a subtle, wry and frequently beautiful movie. One of the best of the nineties.
It’s a testament to Lee’s ability to exert charming naturalistic performances from his actors that Kevin Kline’s Ben Hood is bearable at all – a dense, bumbling man who is sleeping with his neighbour’s wife. Yet the infidelity is completely understandable when the greater context of their relationships is revealed. Ben’s wife Elena is frozen, just-barely holding together. She is nostalgic for her girlhood and isolated in their bourgeois world. Jim Caver is an absent presence in his household, and so his wife Janey has turned to Ben out of boredom.
And then there are their kids. The adults are so preoccupied with their own sexual complications that they are largely unaware of the awakenings going on between their children. Wendy Hood has a crush on Mikey Carver, and provokes jealousy in him with her precocious behaviour with his younger brother. And whilst these story set-ups might sound trite or boring – straight out of your average (or even below average) soap opera – they are so deftly realised that they feel real, honest, true.
It’s hard to pick standout performances, but special credit must surely go to Joan Allen and Christina Ricci. Allen makes Elena a heart breaking creation. “I haven’t been on a bike in years” she reminisces as she sees her daughter ride through town in one of the dozens of simply effective vignettes the movie holds. Elena has lost a part of herself that she longs to get back. When she echoes her daughter’s actions, cycling through town and committing petty theft at a general store, it ends in failure and embarrassment. Whilst as Wendy, her daughter, Christina Ricci steals every scene she is in. This was soon after her breakout performances in the Addams Family movies, and that ferocious adolescent intensity is here channelled into something truly extraordinary.
Simple touches sell the reality of the families. Why do siblings Wendy and Paul call each other ‘Charles’? It’s a private joke that we’re not privy to. Untold history. These characters have shared experiences outside of our frame of reference. Similarly, it is the understatement here that impresses. Janey’s infidelity, and Elena’s knowledge of it, is evident in a conversation over who should do the dishes. Subtext is everything.
As the storm hits, things come to a head. Elena is unable to ignore Ben’s actions outside of the family, and a drunken outburst at a key-party finally breaks the ice between them. The film also condemns the grown-ups for their trespasses, punishing them by punishing the young with a development so tragic and ghastly that I daren’t spoil it for anyone reading this who hasn’t seen it.
As ever, Lee makes his surroundings key to proceedings. He frames the houses with the bare tree trunks of winter. The trees turning into bars. These people are trapped. And as Wendy and Mikey kiss in the gutted swimming pool, their feet swamped by dead leaves, the brittle tree branches above them sway. They are an island of warmth in a destroyed world.
If this all sounds too dark, dreary and foreboding then I’m doing the film a disservice by not highlighting the warmth that exists here also. Sure the 70s trappings add an element of kitsch (waterbeds, Nixon, key-parties, Pink Floyd) but beyond that there is pleasure to be found in the humanity of every single character, and the wry comedy that is born out of people doing and saying the ridiculous. The parental advice given out by Janey and Ben is brilliantly bad. Janey’s advice to Wendy is obtuse and baffling, whilst Ben’s attempts to warn Paul about self-abuse at home is excruciating. Cringe-comedy of the highest order.
There is plenty more to say. I could probably write a similarly boring essay on every character within this movie. I won’t. But it would be possible, so rich is the detail, so nuanced are the performances. I don’t know if writing this will encourage anyone to seek The Ice Storm out, but I hope it so. It’s a gem of a movie. Precious to those of us who have been fortunate enough to see it. Please, give it a go. That is all.