The Ice Storm (1997)

D: Ang Lee
S: Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Christina Ricci

Searing portrait of suburban American desolation in the early seventies adapted by James Schamus from Rick Moody's novel. The film appears to have angered large numbers of American critics for abandoning the comic edge of its source material. It is perhaps a surprising follow up for director Ang Lee to Sense and Sensibility and the wonderful Eat Drink Man Woman. It is a desperate portrait of empty lives and the beginnings of what we now call dysfunction in a family whose communication has collapsed with each member's increasing self-absorption in the moral wilderness of the Watergate era. But it hits hard and works well, and the results are quite rewarding for those with the patience and tolerance to stick with it.

The plot concerns the affairs (literally) of a nuclear family consisting of would-be playboy Kevin Kline, repressed wife Joan Allen, college student and comic reader Tobey Maguire and pubescent but sexually adventurous Christian Ricci. During a particularly vicious ice storm in Connecticut, each has a very different sexual encounter which leaves them only further apart both from one another and from themselves, until a death shatters the peaceful illusions of a society bereft of purpose and meaning.

Configuring the 1970s as a dreary wasteland is a curious movement back to the films of that very era. It is curious because more recent films such as Boogie Nights have posited it as a time of stylised fun and frolics with healthy doses of sex, drugs and rock and roll. These things are present here, but none of them seems much like fun, and there is very little pleasure evident in the characters' indulgences.

Beautifully framed by Frederick Elmes' cinematography of the frozen landscape (both before and after the storm), the world of this film is empty and lifeless, mirroring its characters' internal lives. The excesses of interior decoration, dress and sexual behaviour are not treated as a camp celebration, but represent a time of aimless drift in the American psyche with powerful effect. In many ways it resembles some of the New Hollywood films of the early seventies, and contains some explicit political references to the time (including an hilariously surreal sexual encounter involving a Richard Nixon mask). But Lee's cinematic sensibility is suitably removed from both the angry political activation of the New Hollywood and the current 'anything for a spectacle' postmodern Hollywood aesthetic to allow it to explore its world with a pointed concern for the dynamics of family and society more suited to the era in which the film has actually been made.

The performances are impeccable, and even allow moments of humour to shine through what is, for the most part, quite a slow and serious film. Weaver is particularly good as the self-centered seventies feminist in what amounts to a study of her own screen persona. Kline, who receives billing before the title, renders a complex character well, and balances one or two moments of po-faced comedy with a convincing male in crisis, about to lose his identity to social change but unsure of how or why. Allen continues her line in worried repression with ease and skill, but is likely to find herself typecast forever unless she breaks out of it soon (if it's not already too late).

Lee balances the drama well, though the hard work is done in the script by long time collaborator Schamus. The film deals with many of the same elements of their previous Taiwanese and American efforts. Its focus on family and environment, rituals and games, makes it one with Eat Drink Man Woman, though its tone is considerably darker. It is the bleakest film Schamus and Lee have made together to date, which does not necessarily make it the best, but which has endeared it to many European commentators.

The Ice Storm is a well worked, well acted drama with several memorable moments of wry satire and dark self-absorption capable of bringing a chill to the spine of any serious film goer. Others may find it a tad slow and insular and may not care much what happens to these characters. Still, it is mystifying that the film was so pointedly snubbed at Oscar time, because it easily ranks among the best films released in 1997.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.