Where would modern American cinema be without the common theme of suburban malaise to tinker with as both the means of dissecting the American dream piece by piece and the delivery vehicle with which to deliver cutting satire over just how nightmarish that dream can be? Ang Lee achieves both of these objectives in The Ice Storm, by selecting a setting of Thanksgiving, the holiday American culture has arbitrarily pegged as being notorious for when families tear each other to emotional pieces. He throws into the mix two troubled families with parents stuck in petty adolescent struggles and children left without any real guidance as they deal with budding senses of sexuality and a few bad decisions. The film is as apt a study of the simmering discontent of upper middle-class America as can be found, and it benefits hugely from Ang Lee’s outsider perspective as well as a cast filled with notable and excellent actors like Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, Joan Allen, Christina Ricci, Elijah Wood, and Tobey Maguire. Though at times incredibly uncomfortable to watch, The Ice Storm captures the essence of rich American suburbia in a way no film has since.
In the waning years of the sexual revolution of the 1970s, two wealthy Connecticut families, headed by Ben (Kline) & Elena Hood (Allen) and Janey (Weaver) & Jim Carver (Jamey Sheridan), prepare for the annual family festivities and the infamous party that one of their more sexually adventurous friends throws each year. The marriage of Ben and Elena is on the rocks, and that fact isn’t lost on their son Paul (Maguire), who returns from boarding school, and their daughter Wendy (Ricci), who’s begun flirtations with Mikey, the eager older son of Janey and Jim. A sense of unease and hypocrisy permeates the Hood household thanks to Ben’s curiosity for the more adventurous sexual exploits he only hears about through stories which clashes with Elena’s sense of what her relationship with her husband is all about, even as Ben stifles Wendy’s own sense of curiosity and Paul’s is left undiscussed and unfulfilled. Everything comes to a boil on the night of the big party as an ice storm approaches and a number of decisive choices are made by all characters that endanger innocence, marriages, and a life.
The set design and costumes of The Ice Storm play a pivotal role in establishing The Ice Storm in a certain period of time, and while that’s the case in every period piece, the time period in this film ties directly to many of the themes the film plays with: sexual exploration, hypocrisy, and disappointment. The film devotes itself to its setting and it pays off by making the plot points resonate all the more strongly for having a sense of universalism to them; this may be the story of two isolated families, but the sense of malaise and tension weren’t specific to just them, it was a widespread American affliction. Watching the married couples pair off at the key party with all the varying reactions to who winds up with whom, the sense that clearly not everyone is comfortable with the concept but many are just going along for the ride lest they look like prudes shines through.
The Ice Storm tackles so many elements at the heart of American insecurity, and it does so with a touch that’s both delicate in its approach and brutal in its unflinching realization of the outcome. It doesn’t mince words or spare feelings; this is a film about breakdowns and deconstruction of the American myth of marital bliss, and it handles both with aplomb. The Ice Storm might not be easy to watch, but it’s worthwhile if for no other reason than for the astute picture of American dissatisfaction it paints courtesy of an outsider’s perspective.
Blu-ray Bonus Features
The on-disc extras start off with an audio commentary by Director Lee and producer-screenwriter James Schamus that offers some interesting insight into the two different perspectives and backgrounds that brought the film’s themes of American discontent to life, and it’s complemented nicely with a production documentary that features interviews by the big stars of the cast discussing what makes The Ice Storm unique and how it affected their careers (especially those of Ricci, Maguire, and Wood) in somewhat profound ways. Additionally, an interview with Rick Moody, the author of the novel upon with the film is based, adds to the conversation about the film’s perspectives on American suburbia. Rounding out the disc are little tidbits like deleted scenes, a 2007 event at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image where Lee and Schamus were honored, interviews with the Director of Photography Frederick Elmes, production designer Mark Friedberg, and costume designer Carol Oditz, and, finally, the film’s trailer.
As with all Criterion Collection releases, the booklet insert features an essay, this time by film critic Bill Krohn on the subject of Ang’s approach to the film and its many underlying themes and metaphors.
"The Ice Storm (The Criterion Collection)" is on sale July 23, 2013 and is rated R. Drama. Directed by Ang Lee. Written by Rick Moody (novel), James Schamus. Starring Christina Ricci, Elijah Wood, Joan Allen, Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, Tobey Maguire.