America Through Nature’s Gaze: ‘The Ice Storm’

[23 August 2013]

By John Oursler

What is the nature of ice? Ephemeral, arresting, beautiful, ice lacks permanence by design, yet, in its solidified state, can be both dangerous and captivating. It’s in a constant state of flux, solely dependent upon its surroundings in order to gain footing. Starting as one thing then becoming another, ice engages a totalizing transformation,either mid-journey or after the fact, that is part of the same life cycle as its infinite surrounding organisms. It’s one of nature’s relatively few creations that can ellipse back and forth between states of being in a constant ebb and flow of regression and progress. This poetic backdrop serves as the primary frame of reference for Ang Lee’s masterful presentation of American ennui, The Ice Storm.

One of ice’s primary qualities, reservedness, is one that Lee cleverly weaves into a cinematic framework. Everything about his film, from the dialogue to the characterizations to the score, is understated. There are no easy answers and no sweeping generalizations about motivations or past histories. The setting, the affluent suburbs of 1973 New Canaan, Connecticut, is one ripe for social commentary or satire, seen most clearly two years later with Mendes’s American Beauty. Lee’s film smartly avoids the too-easy temptation to generalize an entire demographic, one that’s already provided plenty of cinematic fodder; this is not simply a “white people’s problems” survey.  Instead, he keeps things close to the chest, never deigning to tell you who these people are but astutely showing you why they might be who they are. This delineation between definition and hypothesis is formative.

America circa 1973 is a tumultuous time in history. A decade after JFK’s assassination, and on the heels of the Watergate scandal and much disapproved Vietnam conflict, the country faced one of its greatest watershed moments; who are we and what are we doing here? Film characterizations of this time, understandably, tend to be dramatic retellings of an anxious period. While there’s much to protest, the quieter side of the struggle seems to get lost in the depicted period.

Newly refurbished on meticulous Criterion blu-ray, Lee’s adaptation of Rick Moody’s classic novel almost entirely steers clear of the clichéd renderings of this hectic era. The Ice Storm follows the frequently convergent stories of two families, the Hoods and the Carvers. Ben and Elena Hood (Kevin Kline and Joan Allen) are a comfortable but not particularly passionate couple whose teenage children, Paul and Wendy (Tobey Maguire and Christina Ricci), live spectacularly ordinary lives. Their neighbors are the even more dispassionate Carvers, Jim and Janey (Jamey Sheridan and Sigourney Weaver), whose children Mikey and Sandy (Elijah Wood and Adan Hann-Byrd) are roughly the same age as the Hoods. The children interact like most young neighbors in suburbs would, playing together and having sexual firsts, while the adults interact in an analogously mature fashion with dinner parties and town run-ins.

The tone established from the outset is one of subdued resignation. Mychael Danna’s original score plays throughout the film as an extra-diegetic character; its presence is ominous throughout. Life for the characters is an unending parade of rote occasionally peppered with specks of contrived dynamism. Ben and Janey are having an affair, while Elena tries to quietly break free from her own malaise. The children mimic the affects of their parents in a number of subtle ways, most noticeable with Wendy shoplifting for sport while Elena later does it for nervous excitement.  As the storm approaches, both literally and figuratively, each character is faced with one in a string of life’s hurdles, be it sexual awakening or mid-life crisis.

Part of what makes Lee’s film such a masterpiece is the way he never condescends to his characters, thereby making them intimately relatable to an audience. A disappointing trend in modern filmmaking finds this particular social stratum- white and wealthy- critiqued as a discursive default. Lee takes a more nuanced approach by providing little back story or broad arcs; what’s on the screen is the reality of their existence. Even when tragedy strikes, the reactions never escalate inappropriately.

The Ice Storm follows in the tradition of Ozu’s late-period family melodramas, the well known Late Spring and Tokyo Story , but also The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice and Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family . Ozu’s deliberate style slowly lulls the viewer into a state of rapt engagement with the story, which is what Lee expertly does in his film. When something particularly noticeable happens, like Setsuko Hara’s emotional confession in Tokyo Story or when Wendy and Sandy’s characters mourn the loss of Mikey, there’s an undeniable emotional resonance that comes from the previously understated, but not indifferent, style and pacing; it’s a perfect storm of style bolstering content.

Featuring career best performances from almost everyone involved, The Ice Storm holds up as document that is at once identifiably “of a time” but also impeccably timeless.

* * *

As one has come to expect with Criterion releases, bonus features abound on the newly restored blu-ray of The Ice Storm. Of particular note is an interview filmed in 2007 at the Museum of the Moving Image with Lee and his longtime screenwriting collaborator James Schamus in which Schamus describes the inception of their successful partnership. An interview with the novel’s author Rick Moody illuminates the nature of adaptations from the perspective of the originator, while a “making of” documentary includes insightful anecdotes from the film’s primary cast and explains the ingenious process for creating a universe covered in fake ice.

Published at: