“Have you ever read The Idiot? If you liked Notes from the Underground, you’ll love The Idiot” — Paul Hood (Tobey Maguire) The Ice Storm
Is Ang Lee the most versatile, competent filmmaker working today?
The Taiwanese gentleman certainly possesses one of the most singularly fluid sensibilities of anyone working in the medium, and he seems to just keep getting better and better.
In the early ’90s, Lee helmed The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman, two essential Taiwanese-language romps that segued, somewhat bafflingly, into an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. By choosing this literary work as his English language debut, Lee was able to display his virtuosic auteur side. He constructed a near-flawless period film with the assistance of Emma Thompson’s meticulous script, and was rewarded with the usual spate of gold statues and requisite award nominations.
Even though Lee had already been routinely topping his own achievements for years, in two languages, it still seemed that critics were unprepared for the thoroughly brilliant suburban bonding and clandestine clinches that take place in what is likely his best film to date, The Ice Storm. Thankfully, the film has just been given a new lease on life, enjoying a proper, deluxe treatment by the Criterion Company.
With Criterion’s director-approved, special edition double-disc offering of The Ice Storm, the label once again gives cinema connoisseurs something to drool over, starting with the stunning packaging (the art direction of their most recent selections has been beautiful – give that employee a raise!). In addition, the packed-with-extras edition also includes a thought-provoking commentary with the director and screenwriter James Schamus, a restored high-definition digital transfer supervised by Lee and cinematographer Frederick Elmes that will take your breath away, a newly-filmed documentary with most of the principle actors, and several deleted scenes that add even more dimension to the already full characterizations. And that is just the start.
There is not a single superfluous scene in this adaptation of Ron Moody’s novel about the poignant, often darkly funny exploits of the denizens of New Canaan, Connecticut in 1973. The ennui that permeates the miserable, predictable lives of these families, and the examination of the way they react to (and act out against) the desolation in their private and public spheres is the foundation from which Lee builds. This is a definite theme that informs Lee’s work, from Brokeback Mountain to his most recent, Lust, Caution. What happens behind closed doors, in secret, when no one is watching, is almost as fascinating as what is happening in plain view.
The opening image of a train frozen in its tracks sets the emotional tone for the film: brittle, deliberate, cautious, and glacial. Slowly, agonizingly, the train starts to creak and roll. It’s Thanksgiving, and Paul Hood (Tobey Maguire, who needs to make more movies like this one) is on his way home from prep school to visit his family.
We are led to believe that father Ben, mother Elena, and little sis Wendy (Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, and Christina Ricci, respectively) are, at first glance, the perfect, typical American family. Upon closer inspection, though, we see that Dad likes to drink a lot, Mom just sort of floats through the day oblivious, with blinders on, while Wendy is pissed off about Watergate, and a host of other things, too. While on the outside, they seem like the family that has it all, they are in actuality fragmented and insular.
Elena even dutifully turns a blind eye to Ben’s blatant flirtation with neighbor Janey Carver (an imperious Sigourney Weaver). Janey is a glam, detached temptress whose only allegiance is to hedonism and self-discovery. Her husband Jim (Jamey Sheridan) is gone too often to reign in her destructive sexuality. Not even her kids, Mikey and Sandy (Elijah Wood and Adam Hann-Byrd) can pacify her desperate need for companionship.
While all of the parents are preoccupied with adultery and finding themselves, their kids are coming of age without much real guidance. Wendy explores the boundaries of her own burgeoning sexuality with the Carver boys as her father seeks out the boys’ mother upstairs. The young actors channel their characters with a nice balance of shocking maturity and youthful abandon. Ricci, in particular, makes Wendy the perfect blend of a Lolita woman-child and young activist.
Ben and Janey’s affair starts to feel too much like a marriage for her taste. “Ben, you’re boring me. I have a husband. I don’t particularly care to have another,” she says, lying in bed naked after an afternoon tryst as Ben blathers on about the trivialities of his day. He assumes that Janey is there solely for his pleasure. Back at home, Elena is cooking and trying desperately to connect with and reach out to Wendy. The women have more in common than they know, but the sheltered Elena doesn’t have the emotional tools to have anything other than a surface relationship with anyone. She knows something is wrong, but can’t pinpoint it.
The fragility of people in intricate relationships and how hard it is to reclaim the kind of innocence and tranquility you possess as a child are running themes in The Ice Storm. The stillness and reactive nature of the performances in this troupe, the curiosity in every look, and the way Lee allows the camera to linger on a simple shot of wind rustling through trees that have lost their leaves all add to the sense of spectacular loneliness and longing that is so expertly captured. Everyone in the film wants to reach that state of nirvana in their own screwed up way.
Elena does it by trying to recapture a sense of abandon she knew as a girl by freely riding her bike and stealing at the local five and dime – the exact thing Wendy chooses when she acts out. Lee’s insistence that we cyclically repeat the behaviors of our parents, that we are all mere shadows of our parents, plays out in both the Hood and Carver children’s interactions. While they seem to be keenly aware of how messed up their folks are, they are participating in the same kinds of destructive behaviors. Still, there is something more acceptable or pure about the adolescent’s experimenting with sex, and seeing their parents fumble around is just profoundly sad. It seems as though the kids are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the adults.
The general fuzzed-out sense of malaise that Lee is able to tap into while exploring the Nixon-era sexual revolution (and repression and adventure) creates a point of view that both ruthlessly observes these alien suburbanites and also perhaps empathizes with them, without a rush to judgment. For Lee, this film becomes a very personal statement, but it also functions as both satire and high art.
Lee’s dissection can be unflinching at times, but the actor’s clever interpretations are, across the board, uniformly flawless. As the blustering, clueless Ben, Kline gives a career-best performance and is matched every step of the way by the hushed rage of his exquisite partner Allen, one of the most under-used actresses working today. But it is the enigmatic inhabitation of Janey Carver by Weaver that will stop viewers cold. Her fully-realized, eloquent work here is maybe one of the biggest Oscar snubs in the past 20 years, which is curious because this is one of the actresses’ defining moments on film. Her versatility as a performer indicates that she is as equally fearless and elegant as her director.
What Lee chooses to expose, through Weaver (a cinematic icon best known for her portrayal of Lt. Ellen Ripley in the Alien series), is a sort of cunning hypocrisy and aloofness that trickles down from the parents to the children. They try to control the youngsters’ sexuality to no avail, while their own sexual proclivities spiral out of control. Lee is able to show how incapable the parents are of loving and connecting, and how damaged their offspring will be because of it. The adults are really the ones who need parental guidance.
In the film’s masterful, shattering final act, where the titular event takes place and an epic, centerpiece of a key party threatens to tear everyone apart, it is hard to tell if the characters are going to change for the better or if they are going to just not learn anything at all. Lee leaves things deliberately ambiguous, preferring to let shadows and reflecting light, as well as the sound of ice clinking against the wet pavement, foreshadow the impending drama.
These damaged characters have a lot of work to do before they become whole again. Perhaps Lee is being faithful to the source material, or perhaps he is providing audiences with a commentary on spoiled, bourgeois American behavior that matches the clinical exactness of a surgeon making an incision. The perspective he provides on these themes is more insightful and essential for film lovers than most of the cinematic trash that passes through the local multiplex. Lee is an outsider, in many ways, to the traditional systems of filmmaking, and to typical film-going audiences. Since this film is essentially about being lonely, one could surmise that the empathy Lee has chosen to display towards these lost souls is born from his own struggle for acceptance in a foreign culture.
In the end, when everything is slick, covered in ice and dead silent, the images that elliptically glide by in The Ice Storm’s brilliant, haunting climax will stick with viewers more than anything. Relationships will crumble, and the carefully-constructed glass house worlds of the Carvers and the Hoods will be irrevocably changed.
What makes people stay together? Love? Sex? Family? The (misguided) search for deeper meaning and fulfillment is what makes The Ice Storm one of the most moving cinematic experiences you will encounter. Filled with impeccable detail and construction, and a mysterious, minimalist visual style, this is a perfect film in every sense that only cements Lee’s reputation as one of the finest directors we have. It is his masterpiece, one of the best films of the ’90s, and Criterion’s royal treatment only enhances the filmmaker’s vision every step of the way.