Ice Storm, The (United States, 1997)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Perceptive is the best single word I can come up with to describe The Ice Storm, Ang Lee's near-masterpiece that deconstructs the American family. For, although the film is provocative, entertaining, and impeccably crafted, its greatest strength is its ability to convey truths that lie deep beneath the surface. The Ice Storm is perceptive about people, relationships, and human nature, and there's not a single moment in the entire 112 minute running length that rings false.

Back in the early '90s, the Taiwan-born Lee had a pair of art house hits, The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman, that brought him international acclaim. Then, in 1994, Lee was selected to helm Emma Thompson's adaptation of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility. The film, which was released in 1995, earned multiple Academy Award nominations and ensured that Lee would never again be relegated to obscurity. For his followup to Sense, Lee chose The Ice Storm, and the accomplished result points to a director who has matured in every way.

The Ice Storm takes place during Thanksgiving week, 1973, in New Canaan, Connecticut. On the political front, the nation was still bathed in the aftermath of Vietnam and President Nixon's regime was beginning to crumble as the Watergate situation escalated. With trust in the government giving way to cynicism and disillusionment, it was the end of an era. It was also the beginning of a time when the stability of the family began to waver, with the divorce rate skyrocketing to its current level of 50% and children being forced to cope with the reality that their father and mother might not always be together.

The Hood family, like so many others of the time, is dysfunctional, even though it doesn't appear to be. Paul (Tobey Maguire) is an average 16-year old off at prep school learning about Dostoevsky in the classroom and the difficulties of romance outside of it. His younger sister, Wendy (Christina Ricci) is a restless 14-year old, intensely curious about sexual matters, and willing to explore them beyond the bounds of prudence and propriety. Paul and Wendy's parents, Ben and Elena (Kevin Kline and Joan Allen) appear at first glance to be the perfect mother and father. But their perfection is a sham, and while Ben dallies with a willing neighbor (Sigourney Weaver), Elena stews in her own loneliness.

The Ice Storm examines the unstable dynamic of the family in a constantly-changing world. It's a coming of age tale that shows how the discoveries and development of the parents parallel those of their children, and suggests that age doesn't always equate to understanding. Sexually and socially, everyone in this film is groping for answers, whether their age is fourteen or forty. In fact, it could be argued that the teenagers have a clearer and healthier approach to sexuality than their elders. More often than not, the children in The Ice Storm are open about what they want. The adults, on the other hand, feel the need to resort to deception and wife- swapping games to achieve the same ends.

The title refers to a massive late-November ice storm that blankets New Canaan with a frozen glaze. Not only is the storm crucial to the film's resolution, but its vivid presentation makes it almost a character in its own right as it coats trees, power lines, and streets with ice and turns the world into a beautiful-but-deadly place. (From a technical standpoint, it's amazing to note that Lee created the winter wonderland without any help from Mother Nature -- as credible as everything looks, none of the ice is real.)

Every character in this film is interesting, and it's a pleasure to spend time with each of them. No one here is perfect, and we're presented with finely-detailed portraits of flesh-and-blood human beings, with their strengths and weaknesses laid bare. All of the various relationships are likewise intricately developed: brother and sister, husbands and wives, parents and children, teenagers and their would-be sex partners, and men and women having affairs. It's amazing how real these characters are, and how profoundly engrossing such a simple story can be.

Lee accurately captures the "feel" of the early '70s, which is ironic since, during the year when The Ice Storm transpires, he didn't speak English and hadn't yet set foot in America. However, for those of us who lived through that era, there are plenty of familiar images and items. Some, like the bellbottoms, wide-collared shirts, and gas-guzzling cars, are expected. Others, like the bubble umbrella and the anti-pollution TV spot featuring a crying Native American, show that Lee was willing to take things to another level of detail. While it's true that The Ice Storm may not represent the reality of the '70s, it effectively fits our memories of the time.

The lead performances are all terrific. Kevin Kline elicits feelings of sympathy and scorn for the loutish Ben. Joan Allen imbues her character with enough humanity to keep Elena from being reduced to a stereotypical martyr. Tobey Maguire is believable as the kind of guy that girls always see as the brotherly type. Then there's Christina Ricci, one of the best actresses of her generation, finally getting a chance to show what she can do in a good motion picture (some of her less-than- impressive previous credits include two Addams Family movies, Casper, Now and Then, and That Darn Cat!). As expected, Ricci doesn't let us down -- her interpretation of Wendy is knowing, intense, and nuanced.

I have heard complaints that the trailer for The Ice Storm makes the film look uninvolving. If that's true, it does this fine motion picture a great disservice. Then again, it's always difficult to effectively represent a drama using two minutes of clips. The Ice Storm's impact cannot be conveyed in such a short span -- this is a movie that needs to be seen in its entirety. The experience will be more than worth the investment in time. The Ice Storm is at times funny, poignant, moving, and sensitive -- but, no matter what, it's always perceptive.

Ice Storm, The (United States, 1997)

Ranked #3 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 1997
Run Time: 1:52
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Situations, Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1