Ice storms are magnificent and dangerous. The outdoor world becomes a
gallery of ominous wonders, filled with crystalline sculptures that
glisten in the winter light. Of course, the ice creates great hazards
along with the beauty. Tree limbs and power lines grow heavy and snap
under the extra weight, while surface areas become slick and treacherous.
Although ice storms are alluring, most people choose to stay inside.
Those who elect to venture out do so with great caution.
But not the characters in "The Ice Storm." Adults hop in their cars to go
for a drive on the slippery roads, while children venture forth to
explore. One boy actually maneuvers his way onto a frozen diving board,
where he proceeds to bounce up and down over the concrete surface of an
empty swimming pool. Why? Why does a group of apparently intelligent
people repeatedly engage in self-destructive behavior?
"The Ice Storm" succeeds because director Ang Lee doesn't tell us why.
Set in an affluent suburb of New Canaan, Connecticut in 1973, against the
backdrop of Watergate and the remnants of the 60s cultural revolution,
the angst-filled characters play out their lives without explanation. To
paraphrase Lisa Simpson, they are enigmas, wrapped in riddles, wearing
Lee, director of "Sense and Sensibility" and the wonderful "Eat Drink Man
Woman," uses the tacky fashions of the early 70s to establish the era,
but generally avoids playing the garish trappings for comedy. His stance
is that of an observer, maintaining almost as much emotional distance as
his characters keep between each another. He uses a beautifully staged
ice storm as a metaphor, but leaves it to the viewer to determine exactly
what aspect of human behavior the metaphor is addressing. The result is
disquieting and compelling; images of these foolish people linger long
after the movie is over.
The story, based on Rick Moody's 1994 novel, focuses on the Carvers and
the Hoods, upscale New Canaan families who frequently travel the wooded
path between their houses. Benjamin Hood (Kevin Kline) is the bed-mate of
Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver) in a loveless affair. Meanwhile, his wife
Elena (Joan Allen) trudges through her duties, brimming with hostility
but playing the role of silent martyr. Jim, Janey's husband, is a
preoccupied type who makes little impact on his family. When he returns
from one of his frequent business trips and cheerfully tells his boys
"I'm back," one of them replies "You were gone?"
As the tension builds between the adults, their children keep busy aping
their parent's behavior. When not glued to her television watching the
Watergate proceedings or tossing caustic remarks at her father, Wendy
Hood (Christina Ricci) pursues her sexual curiosity with both of the
Carver boys; moody, analytical Mike (Elijah Wood) and his little brother
Sandy (Adam Hann-Byrd,) a painfully shy kid who spends his spare moments
blowing up his toys. Wendy's brother Paul (Tobey Maguire) comes home from
prep school for Thanksgiving, but his focus is back at school, where he
vies with his roommate for the attention of a beautiful young woman.
With the Carvers and the Hoods, it all keeps coming back to sex. The New
Canaan suburbanites have read about the Sexual Revolution and are
determined to keep up with fashion. Everything builds to a pivotal scene
involving a Key Party, where the men drop their car keys in a bowl. At
the end of the evening, the wives are to fish keys from the bowl and go
home with whoever owns them. The camera captures all of the awkwardness
of the hapless partygoers, downing large amounts of liquor and bantering
nervously as they strain to be on the cutting edge of sexual behavior.
Lee is adept at creating a vivid sense of place, using numerous
establishing and tracking shots to make the wistful, forlorn atmosphere
of New Canaan come alive. When Elena looks up from a sidewalk book sale
and sees her daughter riding her bike down the street, you can almost
feel the crispness of the autumn air. Watching her daughter, Elena envies
Wendy's freedom and playfulness, unaware that the young girl isn't
feeling anything of the kind.
That sort of emotional misunderstanding is common in "The Ice Storm." The
uniformly strong cast conveys the discomfort the characters feel with
themselves and each other. Trapped in some perceived code of behavior,
these people desperately want to relate to each other openly and honestly,
but don't have a clue how to do it, so they make impulsive, foolish
gestures. They know the danger inherent in an ice storm, but can't resist
the beauty, so they venture out onto the slick surfaces anyway. And they
Copyright © 1997 Edward Johnson-Ott