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The Ice Storm

Review by Carrie Gorringe
Posted 17 October 1997

ricestorm.gif (17426 bytes)   Directed by Ang Lee

Starring Kevin Kline, Joan Allen,
Sigourney Weaver, Christina Ricci,
Tobey Maguire, Elijah Wood,
Adam Hann-Byrd, and Katie Holmes,

Screenplay by James Shamus,
from the novel by Rick Moody

November 1973 in New Canaan, Connecticut. There’s an ice storm approaching the day after Thanksgiving, and the entire metropolitan New York City area is about to be paralyzed. Of course, one could argue that the paralysis had set in some time ago, and its prognosis appears to be terminal. The cause of the paralysis is easy to detect: a "drug-resistant strain" of the "Summer of Love" mentality has infected this privileged suburb. Paterfamilias Ben Hood (Klein) has gotten far too familiar with his next-door neighbor, Janey Carver (Weaver). Hood’s wife, Elena (Allen), suspecting that something isn’t right, has been reduced to ingesting 70s literary schlock such as Jonathan Livingston Seagull and any other feel-good, self-help program as her tolerance for her husband’s behavior grows thin. Despite Elena’s discomfort with the status quo, she is the odd woman out in New Canaan; when the fondue pots run empty at the weekend get-togethers, spouse-swapping becomes the order of the day, in the form of "key parties," and Elena, for all of her sleek modern exterior, still retains a semblance of old-fashioned values where such deviations from the social norm are concerned.

Meanwhile, in the midst of parental absence and hypocrisy, the children struggle to raise themselves the best they can. When not glued to the set observing the immediate fallout from the Nixonian fiasco known as the "Saturday Night Massacre" (proof that firing a special prosecutor is an act not without political consequences), Wendy Hood (Ricci) is following in Daddy’s footsteps and playing her own sexual games with the Carvers’ sons, Mikey (Wood) and his younger brother, Sandy (Hann-Byrd). Her brother, Paul, (Maguire), home from his prep school, heads to New York City in hot pursuit of a beauty (Holmes) from his alma mater, whose parents have a habit of going on vacation with her younger siblings and leaving her behind like so much excess baggage. As a result, she likes existentialism and recreational drug use (the two are obviously linked in a cause-and-effect chain here). The arrival of the storm unleashes far more than Nature’s fury on this group of people.

The Ice Storm, in film and book form, captures brilliantly the corrosive, anti-personal responsibility, anti-child mentality, a cultural leftover from the 1960s that worked so well for hedonistic, uncommitted youth, but which didn’t translate so well into middle-class life, with all of its attendant responsibilities (even Strauss and Howe, whose book, Generations, heaped mountains of praise upon the so-called superior nature of their own Boomer cohort, were forced to acknowledge the malevolent effects of their more hedonistic viewpoints upon younger generations stranded in the Boomer wake). The resentment this mentality generated in professionals in their late thirties, still young enough to play and angry at having missed the first wave of what looked like fun, was a particularly poisonous strain, undermining not only parental authority but their children’s sense of trust in their parents to protect and guide them. Ironically, for all of the much-touted benefits of this type of "self-discovery," their tangible manifestation is fairly minimal; Ben Hood, in a car ride home from the train station with his son, still cannot discuss sexuality in an open fashion with him even though Ben is indulging in the covert edition of "open marriage" (adultery in prettier packaging – courtesy of the O’Neills and their fraudulent tome of the same name). Anyone who was unfortunate enough to be raised in this period knows it all too well as an era in which family life threatened to go to pieces at any moment, or, even if he/she was personally sheltered from the misery, knew of someone who was experiencing it first hand. If nothing else, the era, as portrayed in The Ice Storm, aptly demonstrated the sardonic maxim that the middle and upper-middle classes simply couldn’t do the upper-class lifestyle of habitual adultery very well, since they had neither the large amounts of money or lack of responsibility to carry it off with style, not to mention the servants that sheltered the children from its worst effects. This is not to suggest that Lee and Moody aren’t sympathetic on some level with the aspirations of their characters; simply, they have allowed the means to their goals to become the goals themselves, and it is this central error that plays havoc with their, and their children’s, lives. The resulting combination of pity and contempt that Lee and Schamus infuse into their version of The Ice Storm is a perfect one; it ensures empathy with the adults’ plight, while also securing the right amount of detachment with which to judge their behavior.

The only problem with the film, under the circumstances, is its ability to find an audience that will appreciate its merits: it isn’t a nostalgia piece, except for the hopelessly misguided or delusional, so that leaves only the childhood survivors, who may or may not be thrilled to have their own worst suspicions about the era laid bare in such chilling detail. Any such perceptional polarization would be unfortunate, for The Ice Storm embodies the oft-quoted, but often never attained, concept of a flawless ensemble cast..

The performances are masterful in their evocation of the internal confusion so common in this period, as middle-class people desperately sought to throw off old conventions while simultaneously being uncomfortable with the process of doing so. Klein and Allen, as the disintegrating centers of this atomic world, give this film its inner strength. Both Ben and Elena are in pain; they know it and, thanks to the actors’ talent, we feel it. Weaver gives one of the best performances of her career as an adulteress wrapped up in her own personal hell of sexual insecurites; she wants her freedom, verification that she’s still attractive and that great van der Rohe sofa in the living room simultaneously, and thinks she’s found the way to have it both ways. Cruelly, she is the only one who isn’t aware of her own ruse – yet. Maguire and Ricci give all of the adult actors a run and a half for their money; they mix bravado and insecurity into a screen presence that is eerie in its accuracy.

The use of pathetic fallacy (literal storm reflecting metaphorical storm), usually so insufferably obvious, works brilliantly within the story’s strict parameters. When the storm arrives, and the inevitable tragedies ensue, it awakens the adult participants to the belated realization of what they’ve done, or tried to do. For some of them, it may be too late for a mid-course correction in their plans. It’s not necessarily true that social experimentation leads to destruction, but the unthinking brand of it most certainly does. This is the central message – and the strength – of The Ice Storm.

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