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The Ice Storm

The Ice Storm
1997 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic widescreen / 112 min. / Street Date March 18, 2008 / 39.95
Starring Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Henry Czerny, Tobey Maguire, Christina Ricci, Elijah Wood, Adam Hann-Byrd, David Krumholtz, Jamey Sheridan, Kate Burton
Cinematography Frederick Elmes
Production Design Mark Friedberg
Art Direction Bob Shaw
Film Editor Tim Squyres
Original Music Mychael Danna
Written by James Schamus from a novel by Rick Moody
Produced by Ted Hope, Ang Lee, James Schamus
Directed by Ang Lee

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Here's the setup for a sensational, incisive drama about sexual alienation in American suburbia. Bored wives and husbands in a New England bedroom community express their unhappiness through outside affairs and other risky activities. As if sensing the general deterioration of values, a pampered daughter also takes to underage sexual activity. The drama comes to a head at a neighborhood social gathering where couples use a lottery to swap bed partners for the night.

That's a rough description of Sin in the Suburbs, an ambitious 'adult' movie from the middle 1960s written and directed by Joe Sarno. It remains a cult obscurity. Taiwan-born Ang Lee's 1997 The Ice Storm, directing from a novel by Rick Moody, adds the respectability of sensitive performances, political references and poetic visuals. In the waning days of the 'sexual revolution', an American community is experiencing an out-of-control, despairing sexual breakdown.


The prosperous Hood and Carver families of New Canaan, Connecticut are coming apart. Ben Hood (Kevin Kline) is conducting an affair with Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver). The miserable, emotionally confused Elena Hood (Joan Allen) is tempted by a longhaired progressive minister, and caught shoplifting. Disillusioned by the Watergate proceedings on television, Elena's 14 year-old daughter Wendy (Christian Ricci) is convinced that everything around her is both hostile and hypocritical. She makes sexual overtures to the Carver sons, distracted Mikey (Elijah Wood) and the even younger Sandy (Adam Hann-Byrd). The parents' boredom seems malignant when they discuss Deep Throat at a dinner gathering. On an especially cold winter's night, the Hoods' son Paul (Tobey Maguire) gets to date the girl of his dreams, Libbets Casey (Katie Holmes), only to find that his college roommate has been invited as well. Already at the point of breaking up, the Hoods attend a local gathering that turns out to be a 'key party': consenting couples agree to sleep with whoever's key is pulled from a serving dish.

The Ice Storm uses a big weather freeze as its main metaphor; if the movie weren't so resolutely humorless, it could easily be taken as a black comedy. The woods are icing up as if in response to the terminal unhappiness in trendy New Canaan. The Hood and Carver families are no longer functional; none of its members seem to enjoy living together. Husbands and wives cohabitate in open hostility and passive denial. Adulterous sex is a joyless attempt at escape while a housewife's suppressed rage shows itself in pitiful self-destructive acts. The kids withdraw, openly refusing to communicate with their parents. The younger Carver boy amuses himself by blowing up his toys and model airplanes. Wendy is given to behavior that screams out for parental intervention, acting out her need for meaningful human contact by interesting the Carver boys in sexual games.

The script burdens all of this with a political context as unsubtle as Wendy's Richard Nixon mask. Wendy believes that America is based on lies, while some of the adults seem desperate to be a part of the media-fed illusion called the sexual revolution. They talk about Deep Throat and imagine that suburban life in swingin' California is somehow more liberated. Sin in the Suburbs' wife-swapping couples are shallow, bored members of the lower middle class, but the upscale Americans of The Ice Storm are existential weaklings suffering a breakdown of shared values. Have they become so desensitized that a sex lottery is required to make their blood circulate? Or do they think that shattering taboos will allow them to transcend their own misery?

The New Canaanites live in psychological isolation, in glass houses that allow them to see their natural surroundings but also invite unwelcome reflections of their own unhappiness. Ordinary attempts at conversation are choked by layers of irony. Ben's wife accuses him of making dishonest 'small talk' and his attempt at a 'birds & bees' speech to his son is pathetic. But Ben's daughter Wendy reacts strongly to his offer to carry her home when her feet are cold: like most of the characters, she's desperate for meaningful physical contact. 1973 culture has become so over-sexualized, adults and kids assume that sex is the only way people relate to one another.

Slightly outside the familial sickness is college student Paul Hood, whose hopes for sexual conquest fade on a disappointing date. Dream girl Libbets Casey is really interested in Paul's roommate. Paul attempts to reverse that situation but shows that he's retained a streak of decency when he draws the line at date rape. An obvious author surrogate, Paul reads Marvel Comics, which allows The Ice Storm to trowel on another layer of significance: the super-powers of the 'family' in The Fantastic Four are both a blessing and a curse.

Ang Lee brings everything needed to this very American story, save for a sense of humor. He directs The Ice Storm smoothly, guiding an exceptional cast through difficult roles. Joan Allen (Pleasantville) is particularly good as an intelligent woman in a soul-numbing situation. Her Elena welcomes the attentions of a minister from an alternative church (Michael Cumpsty), only to realize that he's as screwed up as any of her neighbors. Sigourney Weaver is the depressed Janey, a woman so distracted that she can't distinguish her liaisons with Ben from her other afternoon errands. Christina Ricci's Wendy at first seems the catalyst for dangerous underage sex, yet she finds calm and balance in an almost motherly embrace with a 12 year-old neighbor. On the night of the big freeze, the forces of nature rise to overpower the human drama, as if restoring balance to a tilted moral universe. Tree branches tinkle with icicles, roads turn slick and downed power lines become an invisible danger.

The movie concludes with a sudden death that shakes some of the characters out of their self-absorption, and provides the story with a welcome final uplift. When Paul's ice-delayed train finally pulls into the station, he's delighted to find his entire family on the platform waiting for him, a minor miracle in these circumstances. Some viewers may reject The Ice Storm's vision of sordid happenings in a land of peace and plenty. The movie seems to say that a nation's values are reflected in personal behavior, and that moral insecurity spreads like a social disease.

Criterion and Fox's 2-Disc DVD of The Ice Storm has a beautiful enhanced transfer and stereo sound, encouraging Bill Krohn's assertion that Ang Lee's film is the best American picture of the 1990s.

Director Lee and producer-screenwriter James Schamus offer an acceptable full-length commentary, and discuss all of their movies before an audience at a museum screening. Joan Allen, Tobey Maguire, Kevin Kline, Elijah Wood, Christina Ricci and Sigourney Weaver speak their minds in a long-form interview documentary, and author Rick Moody has his own interview piece. A trio of 'visual essays' allow the cameraman and designers to explain their work: the realistic winter ice was created with icicles cast in resin and thousands of gallons of hair gel. Also included are a selection of interesting deleted scenes, and Bill Krohn's insert booklet essay.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Ice Storm rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary, interview docus, deleted scenes, creative visual essays, insert booklet with Bill Krohn essay.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 9, 2008

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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