The 1970's remains the most fascinating decade of the last sixty years. It was
time of political corruption, assassinations, funky clothes, mop tops,
psychedelic music, blaxploitation cinema, subversive literature and films, etc.
Films of the 90's continue to explore this decade in great detail from "Casino"
to "Nixon" to "Dazed and Confused" to the current "Ice Storm," a delicate,
delectable, irregular tragicomedy of family manners and mores.
The film's basic structure is patterned around Thanksgiving weekend in 1973 in
the quaint little town of New Canaan, Connecticut. Kevin Kline stars as Ben
Hood, a corporate executive and father to a semi-dysfunctional family where
nobody quite listens to anyone else. Ben is not entirely satisfied with his
life and indulges in a less-than-stimulating affair with his beautiful
neighbor, Jane (Sigourney Weaver). Ben's wife (the fantastic Joan Allen) is a
frigid, repressed woman who seems to find no joy in her life except when she's
stealing red lipstick from the local pharmacy or chatting with the local
minister. Their daughter (Christina Ricci) is affected by the Nixon campaign,
steals candy bars from stores, and is developing hormonal desires towards her
dazed boyfriend (Elijah Wood) and his tense brother (Adam Hann-Byrd).
"The Ice Storm" is essentially an observation of family life after the end of
the Vietnam War and during the numerous liberation movements of that period.
The country is beset by lies such as the Watergate debacle, and in the
messiness of family life in typical suburbia. We see the traditional
Thanksgiving dinner; "key" parties where women pick up men to drive with by
randomly picking keys from a bowl; and the teenagers who indulge in marihuana,
sexual games, drinking, and playing with death, e.g., Elijah Wood walking on a
diving board during an ice storm.
These are all events and they are depicted with knowing clarity by director
Ang Lee. Lee explores this territory better than any American film director
might have, yet he does not bring us close to the characters - we remain
distanced from them and their troubles. Lee was the ideal director for "Sense
and Sensibility" in showing repressed minds but this is set in the 70's, a time
of liberation not repression. The only fully developed character (and one whom
we are not distanced from) is Ben's daughter played by the remarkable Ricci who
brings a wry sense of humor to her precocious character - she has a
terrifically humorous moment where she dons a Nixon mask while trying to have
sex with her boyfriend. The other characters are merely thin characterizations
presented in mostly fleeting moments. Sigourney Weaver is especially playful as
Jane, the sexy adulteress who gives sound advice to the blabbering Ben: 'I
already have a husband. I don't need another,' but her character is shown only
intermittently. The relationship between Ben and his wife is well depicted but
lacking in weight - they seem to drift in their lives without divulging many of
their emotions or feelings. Perhaps that is the point, but it is not dealt with
greater depth. There's a beautiful moment where Ben's wife sees her daughter
riding a bicycle and she, for a moment, feels inner peace. Then she starts to
ride a bike to feel some sense of "liberation." It's a terrific moment and it
is one of the few moments to really strike an emotional chord.
Cinematographer Frederick Elmes ("Blue Velvet") does an astounding job of
depicting this world with dark blue tones for the night scenes, and graying
clouds making the days seems colorless. I love they way he dramatizes the
ensuing ice storm complete with close-ups of a train's icy wheels making
contact with icy rails, and the frozen icicles on the tree's leaves. Ang Lee
also enhances the oncoming climate with the constant weather reports of the
danger ahead. This is also meant as a metaphor for the troubling family
relations in New Canaan. But where's the drama?
"The Ice Storm" is a very fine film and it is exquisitely made. It also has a
wonderful cast, but it's often devoid of genuine feeling - the sentimental
ending (parents can redeem themselves through their children) negates the
somber, enigmatic mood that preceded it. If the film opted to tell its story
from the point-of-view of Christina Ricci, then this would have been a more
complete picture of 1970's family life.
Copyright © 1997 Jerry Saravia