There is a moment in Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm, now available on Criterion Collection Blu-ray, where the 14-year-old Mikey Carver (Elijah Wood) plays on the icy diving board to an empty swimming pool in the middle of the titular weather event. The camera fixes at his feet as they slip on the surface, then pans up to his face where he appears elated to have survived his dim dalliance with disaster.
In many ways, this scene sums up what the characters in this 1997 motion picture attempt. Their relationships are dances atop precarious slabs of frozen material and they navigate with ambivalent footing, often hanging precipitously over a chasm of apathy and latent disdain.
Set during the Thanksgiving season of 1973, The Ice Storm focuses on the lives of a number of Connecticut families. Ben Hood (Kevin Kline) is a dissatisfied cog in the corporate wheel. He is married to Elena (Joan Allen) and their relationship has long since frozen over. Their kids, Paul (Tobey Maguire) and Wendy (Christina Ricci), are likewise navigating the clumsy morass.
Ben is having an affair with his neighbour Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver). She is married to Jim (Jamey Sheridan) and they have two kids together: the aforementioned Mikey and Sandy (Adam Hann-Byrd). Ben and Elena’s relationship appears on the verge of collapse due to the affair, but experimentation at a key party and a subsequent tragedy really draws things to a breaking point of sorts.
The Ice Storm is based on the book of the same name by Rick Moody. It is an elegantly textured adaptation, one the author was mostly pleased with, but it is also a dark film that doesn’t flinch from its illustrations of the aforementioned frozen diving board.
The characters that populate the world of The Ice Storm exist in a state of quiet yearning, with unrealized aspirations flooding their veritable landscapes only to be iced over by the winds of escape. Ben, Elena, Wendy, Paul, Janey, and the others all escape in their own ways, of course.
For Elena, one of the movie’s most interesting character, her despair remains on her face constantly despite attempts to escape through theft and her past. Her relationship with Ben hangs by a thread and her rebellious spirit, the symbol of freedom represented by her daughter’s bicycle trip through town, has blunted through the years.
Wendy, conversely, represents what her mother might have been but also cleaves on to the sexually damaged entity within – complete with rubberized Nixonian disposition. She explores her physicality with both Carver boys, symbolizing the nocturnal emission of “free love” once the theatre for the innocent 1960s and now the orbit of suburbanites with something to prove.
In that respect, the link between mother and daughter is as keen as the link between Ben and Paul. This is underlined with Ben’s amusing “advice” on masturbation to his son and pinned down with the movie’s final scene, a long overdue eruption of emotion from the father in full view of Paul.
The tears may have gone a long way in terms of healing the wounds of the Hood family, but they also may have come too late: after the passage of one too many frozen nights. Lee’s picture sublimely illustrates this with shots of the icy landscape, of water gathering and freezing on the trees and on windows.
The Ice Storm is a fascinating piece of work in Lee’s oeuvre because it honestly captures a compelling time in American history with the keen eye of someone “outside” the culture. His understanding of such a time of confluence, of the melding of two generations into one, is apparent from the opening frame.
It helps that he has many stellar performances to build on, from Allen’s expert yearning to Kline’s “okey dokey” wit. The film is also a wonderful showcase for its young talents, from Maguire and Wood to Ricci and a small but important performance by one Katie Holmes.
The Ice Storm is a tremendous cinematic vision, a picture of acute emotion and of “new landscapes” shaped by the big freeze. It may well be that the “molecules” stop in the cold, as Mikey believes, preventing us from breathing in anything bad. Or, on the other hand, it may be that the path to self-destruction first requires a bowl full of keys.
The Criterion Collection Blu-ray release is a restored high definition digital transfer (2K) with 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master audio. The audio is effective when it comes to revealing all the different doors opening and closing, which represents critical plot points along the picture’s timeline.
The bonus features include a commentary by Lee and screenwriter James Schamus, some deleted scenes, an interview with Schamus and Lee at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image in the Lust, Caution era, an interview with the author of the novel, and an impressive 36-minute documentary that features some of the stars discussing their impressions of the picture. There’s also a booklet featuring an essay by Bill Krohn and a pair of audio interviews about the production and costume design of The Ice Storm.