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THE ICE STORM (1997)
It’s tiresome how decades get characterized in neat and simplistic ways (flower children of the sixties, greed of the eighties, retrenchment of the nineties, and so on). It’s as if a page is turned at the start of each decade, the past is wiped out, and we start living by an entirely new script. That, of course, is phoney. We know that 1970 wasn’t inherently different from 1969, 1989 and 1990 were pretty darn similar and 2000 didn’t differ much from 1999.
The Ice Storm is set in the 1970s, and it would be far too easy to simply categorize it as a movie about the emptiness of its era. It would also sell this fine film short.
The story is set in suburban Connecticut during November of 1973. The Hoods are an upper middle class family, each member struggling alone to find meaning in life. There’s the two-timing dad Ben (Kevin Kline), whose guilt has him perpetually playing what his daughter calls an ‘Up With People’ routine. There’s the sad wife Elena (Joan Allen), stumbling along, maintaining a surface appearance of success masking huge feelings of emptiness. There’s the 16-year-old son Paul (Tobey Maguire), good-naturedly trying to connect with various women of his dreams, despite being dogged by a best friend who beds each and every one of them. And there’s the 14-year-old daughter Wendy (Christina Ricci), flitting back and forth between seemingly innocent childhood and aggressive adult sexuality.
On the night of a terrible ice storm, things come to a head for all four family members, and relationships and lives snap like the ice-covered branches of trees in the neighbourhood. Ben and Elena attend a risqué party featuring a bowlful of car keys, from which each woman randomly chooses a set – and a partner for the evening. Paul is making a move of his own, on the latest ‘perfect’ girl with whom he hopes to move beyond being ‘just friends.’ And Wendy is departing for other adventures on this dark, bone-chillingly cold and ultimately dangerous night.
It’s obvious that everyone in this not-so-happy family is putting on a façade, and during the film’s climactic scenes, it’s ripped away from everyone. This is emotionally brutal stuff, and in its midst, the film’s characteristic moments of mild comic relief are entirely absent. There’s no mistaking that there’s a serious message here about values and family and how we can get utterly off-track in our lives without even noticing that it’s happening.
The Ice Storm has delightful moments of humour, but it is essentially a sombre film. But don’t let that put you off. The cast is uniformly strong – both the adults (Kline, Allen and Sigourney Weaver are disturbingly good) and the kids (Ricci is positively scary, Elijah Wood is fascinating, and Maguire is excellent as the family member who doesn’t realize that he’s the glue that holds his family together). Their exploration of hypocrisy, loneliness and the struggle for greater meaning is intelligent, powerful and worthwhile.
I really didn't know what to expect from The Ice Storm. What I got was a quirky, strange, and somehow satisfying look into the self-destruction of two families in 1973 Connecticut.
The Hoods are coming apart as the result of Ben Hood's (Kevin Kline) drinking and adultery. Elena Hood (Joan Allen) seeks solace in the simple adrenaline rushes that riding a bicycle and shoplifting can provide. Their daughter, Wendy (Christina Ricci), is becoming increasingly sexually active, no matter the possible consequences. Their son, Paul (Tobey Mcguire), who goes to a private high school, is scheming a way to get a date with a girl named Libbets Casey (Katie Holmes) before his best friend has sex with her.
The Carvers, who live next door to the Hoods, are also having trouble relating to one another. Jim Carver (Jamey Sheridan) is a detached father figure. When he returns from a trip, his oldest son, Mikey (Elijah Wood), asks, "You were gone?" Mikey is also detached, but is pursuing his sexual interests with Wendy Hood. Mikey's younger brother, Sandy (Adam Hann-Byrd), idolizes Wendy and also likes to blow stuff up with M80's. Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver) seems to put up with all of it because she has to rationalize her affair with Ben Hood.
The film climaxes as a giant ice storm slowly freezes the neighborhood, trapping most of the major characters inside, forcing them to deal with the questions at hand and the results of their actions.
There's an atmosphere of gloom that seems to wash over this film. Although the film takes place around Thanksgiving, there is no sense of a holiday or anyone giving thanks for anything. In fact, as Wendy says grace at the dinner table, she says, "Thanks for letting us white people kill all the Indians." Everyone seems to be disgusted with what they have or, at least, unsatisfied.
But, yet, the movie is not depressing in the least. In fact, it's quite funny in places. Some of the casual observations about the 1970's are dead on. Having grown-up in the mid-1970's, many scenes brought back vivid memories of my own childhood.
The performances are all finely crafted. Kevin Kline, Christina Ricci and Elijah Wood's being the standouts. Sigourney Weaver's character, however, doesn't seem as defined as the rest. James Schamus' screenplay contains some great dialogue and Ang Lee's direction is subtle, but effective. Although the characters all seemed unhappy in their roles in life, I quite enjoyed my role as a witness to it all. Highly recommended.