Weekend Watch: The Ice Storm

Lucy Scholes

Lucy Scholes on the perfect movie to watch in the run-up to Thanksgiving

16 November 2018 16:32

With Thanksgiving only a few days away, there couldn’t be a better time to re-watch The Ice Storm (1997). Ang Lee’s chilly, crystalline depiction of suburban middle-class malaise explores the entanglements between two families – the Hoods and the Carvers – in New Canaan, Connecticut, during the holiday week of 1973.

Although parallels can be drawn between this and Lee’s 1993 film The Wedding Banquet – both are studies of dysfunctional family relationships – in many ways, there are actually more similarities between The Ice Storm and Sense and Sensibility (1994), which Lee directed immediately before it. New England suburbia in the early 1970s – which is beginning to experience the trickle down effects of the sexual revolution and second wave feminism – is just as diligently brought to life on the screen as that of Jane Austen’s England.

Alongside the more obvious signifiers of the era – the clothes, the waterbeds, dinner party discussions of Deep Throat, and the key parties – the atmosphere is subtly charged with fallout from the unfolding Nixon scandal, details of which are delivered each evening on the news – the Hoods’ 14-year-old daughter Wendy (Christina Ricci) is avidly following developments, much to her parents’ annoyance. Larger political instability morphs into small-scale domestic disharmony; Nixon’s lies are mirrored in Ben Hood’s (Kevin Kline) infidelity, his reaction to the froideur in his own marriage bed is to leap into that of his neighbour, Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver).

Ice Storm (1997)

Watching the film today turns it into a double-layered period piece. It’s a pitch-perfect portrait of the 70s, but it also screams 90s, namely because the formidable ensemble cast brings together some of the great talent of the decade, particularly when it comes to the younger actors. Joan Allen plays Ben’s wife Elena, who’s already having some kind of identity crisis when she discovers her husband’s cheating on her, while their 16-year-old son Paul, who’s home from his prep school for the holidays, is played by quintessential 90s teen Tobey Maguire. Although Maguire’s character provides the narration that begins and ends the film, he doesn’t get a huge amount of screen time. He’s the least engaged with life in New Canaan, more concerned with how to woo the object of his desire, Libbets Casey (Katie Holmes), a rich kid whose parents have left her at home alone in their Park Avenue apartment for the holidays. Where her brother’s failing to make any headway, the precocious Wendy is much more successful. Officially dating the Weavers’ eldest son Mikey (Elijah Wood), this doesn’t stop her from also making moves on his younger brother Sandy (Adam Hann-Byrd), who’s simultaneously tremulous with desire and scared out of his wits by her unexpectedly forceful advances.

For the child and adolescent characters, it’s a coming of age story. Janey arrives home one afternoon to what she first takes to be the sound of gunshots, only to discover Sandy blowing up his toys on the back deck of the family home: if you hadn’t clocked already, this is very much a story about the end of innocence. The grown-ups meanwhile, are in many ways more lost than their offspring. Consumed by their own marital struggles, they’re unable to offer the younger generation any real guidance. ‘If you’re worried about anything at all, just feel free to ask,’ Ben tells Paul during an awkward father-son chat about ‘self-abuse’ (don’t do it in the shower is the older man’s advice, not only does it waste water, but that’s precisely what everyone expects you to be doing in there). ‘And we’ll uh, look it up.’

Although they’re definitely skating on thin ice, the Hoods marriage does appear to be salvageable; the Carvers, meanwhile, is all but frozen solid. Weaver gives a great performance as the ice-cold Janey, whose rejection of her husband Jim (Jamey Sheridan) is all-encompassing. This lack of intimacy and love is reflected in the architecture of their house: a minimalist-style glass block in the middle of the woods, heavy on period features – sunken seating areas, heavy shag pile carpets and a waterbed – but devoid of any personal touches. The Hoods, by comparison, inhabit a less striking but decidedly cozier 1950s-style family home.

Even though the narrative is set during Thanksgiving, the holiday itself doesn’t offer much in the way of a focal point. We see the Hoods sitting down to enjoy their turkey dinner, and there’s a minor kerfuffle when Wendy – who’s been coerced into saying Grace – gives thanks ‘for letting us white people kill all the Indians,’ but this is still the calm before the storm, literal and otherwise. It’s the following evening when things reach fever pitch, tempers and tensions boiling over just as a brutal ice storm hits the East Coast.

Frederick Elmes’ cinematography is stunning throughout – from early close ups of Ben forcefully cracking ice cubes from a metal tray for his evening drink, through the eerie shots of trees after the storm, every individual branch frozen solid, a million tiny icicles – and the performances are all brilliant, though Kline, Allen and Ricci in particular stand out. It’s their family’s story if anyone’s, a fact that’s made clearer in the original 1994 novel by Rick Moody on which James Schamus’ screenplay is based, but is a slower revelation on the screen. Watching The Ice Storm now, two decades after it was made, I’d go as far as to say it’s one of the best films of the 90s.