Criterion // 1997 // 113 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // March 18th, 2008
It was 1973, and the climate was changing.
"To find yourself in the negative zone, as the Fantastic Four often do, means all everyday assumptions are inverted. Even the invisible girl herself becomes visible, and so she loses the last semblance of her power. It seems to me that everyone exists partially on a negative zone level, some people more than others. In your life, it's kind of like you dip in and out of it, a place where things don't quite work out the way they should. But for some people, the negative zone tempts them. And they end up going in, going in all the way." -- Paul Hood
The Ice Storm is a film that permits us to spend a 1973 Thanksgiving week with an upper-class family in Connecticut. The father is Ben Hood (Kevin Kline, A Fish Called Wanda), a weak man and an ineffectual parent. He's conducting an affair with the attractive but somewhat cold Janey (Sigourney Weaver, Alien), attempting to satisfy his sexual desires without upsetting the delicate balance of his marriage. Ben's wife is Elena (Joan Allen, The Upside of Anger), a subdued housewife who feels frustrated with her old-fashioned role in a very progressive world. These adults, and their upper-class friends, are beginning to experiment with sex, drugs, and other risky activities. Such behavior seems "progressive," and no one wants to be too square. They seem to be trying to find themselves again, to figure out what exactly they are supposed to be doing with their lives.
The children of these grown-ups are going through many similar things, as adolescence hits and they are forced to confront their sexuality and their changing bodies for the first time. However, the kids can't seem to find much assistance or wisdom from their parents, who either don't show much interest or offer vague and aimless advice. The intelligent Paul (Tobey Maguire, Wonder Boys) has developed a deep crush on a classmate (Katie Holmes, Batman Begins), and feels pressure to experiment with drugs and alcohol in order to prove his worth to her. Paul's younger sister, Wendy (Christina Ricci, Black Snake Moan), is starting to experiment with her body and begins to make passes at Janey's two sons (Elijah Wood, Everything is Illuminated and Adam Hann-Byrd, Jumanji).
Against the backdrop of small-town Thanksgiving rituals and a fierce oncoming ice storm, these characters begin to discover truths about themselves, life, and love.
Few films have been as effective at placing us in a very specific time and place as Ang Lee's The Ice Storm, which captures the chilly and troubled upper-class world of 1973 Connecticut with astonishing precision and piercing honesty. The film does not rely heavily on outfits, pop songs, and trippy montages to place us in the moment. Sure, the styles and trends of the early 1970s are there -- you might hear Elton John or Jim Croce on the radio, you might see some orange carpet turn up -- but the film never feels like it is trying to sell us anything. It does not go to great lengths to remind us that it is 1973, it simply becomes 1973. We are immediately swept up into the film's world, and not for a moment do we think about the fact that we are watching an artificially constructed film.
This remarkably convincing atmosphere is very important, because it allows us to focus on the plights and struggles of these characters without ever getting distracted by their surroundings. The Ice Storm is frequently harsh and punishing, directed by Lee with an almost unbearable intimacy. Like much of Ingmar Bergman's best work, this film brings up emotions of terrible pain in agonizingly quiet moments. Small gestures, phrases, and actions prove capable of cutting deeper than eloquent speeches. These characters hurt themselves and hurt each other in the midst of their confusion, and it's all the more painful because we care about them so much.
I suspect that a lot of directors would have taken the humorous and satirical moments of this film (there certainly are some) and used them as the springboard for the movie's tone. The Ice Storm could have easily been another American Beauty, a snarky and cruel punishment of despicable characters. Lee proves to be a director of deep compassion and understanding. He certainly shows the characters at their ugliest at times, but he also permits us to feel for them. In little moments, he offers glimpses of their redemption. Kevin Kline's character may be a selfish and misguided wimp, but when you see him carrying his daughter home because her feet are cold, you can't help but want him to find some kind of redemption and understanding. We do not hope for comeuppance in The Ice Storm, we hope for these characters to get another chance at life. In addition, as silly as the 1970s were, I think a lot of directors might have been tempted to spoof or satirize the notions of the day from a smug modern perspective. Lee takes us back to a time when all the styles, fashions, and notions of the era seemed perfectly normal, and we don't laugh at them.
As perceptive as The Ice Storm is about the adults in the story, the children are the ones at the center of attention. It's immensely touching to watch these confused adolescents try to come to terms with the way they are changing. Wendy is in that unique period of life where she desperately wants to be taken seriously and behave like an adult, and yet she still feels the childlike vulnerability of a little girl. The attempts Wendy and the other kids make at showing love and affection are contrasted nicely with the romantic and sexual encounters of the adults, as both groups are shown as equally foolish and wounded.
Ordinarily, I might point out a lot of key scenes during the film that really resonated. With this film, I am hesitant to do so. For one thing, I would hate to spoil anything for those of you who haven't seen the film or read Rick Moody's book. For another thing, the highlights of this film are (mostly) not big speeches or attention-grabbing dramatic moments, but very small glimmers of truth and revelation that come and go in an instant. Consider a tiny moment in which Ben runs his hand down Elena's arm. She responds by saying, "Ben," slightly, firmly, tersely, and Ben's fingers immediately curl up, like some instinctual defensive reaction to an oncoming attack. The film is packed with such moments.
These sensitive moments are handled with equally sensitive and nuanced performances from a very fine cast. Kevin Kline is one of those rare actors who is equally adept at both comedy and drama, and here he manages to bring a certain level of sympathy to the film's least sympathetic character. Joan Allen has built a career around playing frustrated wives, and this is one of her strongest portrayals. Sigourney Weaver is icy and intimidating in her part, but she is also given small moments of tenderness. Some viewers may enjoy seeing pre-Spider-Man Toby Maguire and pre-Lord of the Rings Elijah Wood together in the film; both offer low-key and deeply felt performances. Christina Ricci had been doing a lot of strong work during this early part of her career, but The Ice Storm really gave her a chance to do something even more ambitious, and she certainly delivers in some difficult scenes.
Once again, the fine folks at Criterion have done a first-rate job with this DVD package. Disc One features a commentary from Ang Lee and screenwriter/producer James Schamus. It's up to Schamus to carry a good chunk of this, as Lee tends to be a little quiet, but it's a good commentary with some interesting insights. Lee and Schamus show up again on Disc Two and participate in a 30-minute interview at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York. This interview focuses on all of the collaborations between the two, so it doesn't overlap too much with the commentary.
The primary players in the cast are all featured during a new 35-minute documentary on the film's making. It's a very insightful and informative piece, as the actors address a lot of issues that would have been ignored in many other making-of docs. Primarily, they talk about working with Lee and some of the unique challenges he presented to them. This is followed by a 20-minute interview with Rick Moody, who expresses at length his feelings about how well his book was adapted for the big screen. He initially had some serious reservations about the film, but now he seems to accept it is a very worthy cinematic interpretation. The cinematographer, production designer, and costume designer each get to discuss their own contributions in audio essays (which feature some visual accompaniment). Combined, these run about 35 minutes. Finally, six minutes of deleted scenes offer up some dialogue moments that were trimmed. Apparently, the original cut of the movie was over two-and-a-half hours; I suppose the rest of the deleted footage couldn't be found.
The film really does look nothing short of beautiful thanks to a remarkable transfer. This is about as good as you could expect a standard DVD transfer to be. Sound is excellent as well and offers a fine presentation of Mychael Danna's unique and deeply moving score. Danna's music isn't omnipresent, but when it does appear, it is often asked to carry the scene without many intrusions from dialogue or sound effects.
The packaging on this Criterion DVD hails The Ice Storm as one of the finest films of the 1990s. I have no choice but to concur. The Ice Storm is a masterful character study, an in-depth journey to a specific moment in time, and a deeply moving and compelling dramatic experience. Ang Lee has made quite a few superb motion pictures, and The Ice Storm is arguably his best. This is truly a must-see film, and the strong transfer and bonus materials make that high Criterion price tag well worth paying. A masterpiece.
Review content copyright © 2008 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Top 100 Films: #60
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 113 Minutes
Release Year: 1997
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Audio Commentary
* New Documentary featuring interviews with the cast
* Video Interview with Rick Moody
* Footage featuring an interview with Ang Lee and James Schamus
* Deleted Scenes
* Visual Essays
* Booklet with Essay by critic Bill Krohn
* Original DVD Verdict Review