Set over a Thanksgiving weekend in 1973, Ang Lee’s second English-language film (following Sense and Sensibility) captures a semi-affluent Connecticut family gathering in the suburbs as Watergate plays out on television and a dangerous storm closes in. As in all of Lee’s previous films (and all that would follow, including Oscar-winner Brokeback Mountain and this year’s Lust, Caution), the film pivots around two intertwined and interdependent conflicts: old world tradition versus change and society’s expectations versus an individual desires. These essential themes for the Taiwanese-born filmmaker, whose grandparents were killed in China during the cultural revolution, are captured in The Ice Storm under the larger veil of experimentation—sexual, chemical interpersonal—as Ben Hood (Kevin Kline) attempts to disguise his not-so-secret affair with his neighbor, Janey (Sigourney Weaver), from a detached and daydreaming wife, Elena (Joan Allen), promiscuous daughter, Wendy (Christina Ricci), and a drug-addled, comic book-reading son, Paul (Tobey Maguire), home from prep school. The script, written by long-time Lee collaborator James Schamus off of Rick Moody’s acclaimed 1994 novel, operates like a good joke, with a well-phrased setup—Paul’s references to the Fantastic Four as a family of superheroes, saying in voiceover, “Your family is the void you emerge from and the place you return to when you die”—that plays out in the series of set pieces and humorous, neatly worded monologues that preview the story’s climax, the night of the storm. As in any joke, destiny is a major character: The melodramatic story in Paul’s comic is almost indistinguishable from the fate of Janey’s son, Mikey (Elijah Wood), and the ultimate failed or frustrated sexual attempts by the Hood parents mirror those of their kids. The characters have precious little control over the action of the film, as Ice Storm prefigures the suburban family-dysfunction story that has become so familiar in recent years: Garden State, Me and You and Everyone We Know, Little Children, Little Miss Sunshine. The movie escapes so basic a reading because of Lee himself, an outsider (Lee did not arrive in the United States until 1978) who ably turned Ice Storm into a period piece that examines a significant change in the American way of life: when the barreling train of late-‘60s liberation met the brick wall of suburban, conservative adulthood, symbolized by Nixon’s face on the television screen and the hard lines of the suburban mod architecture awkwardly placed inside New England forests. The costumes in the film reflect a special emphasis on ‘70s culture. Composer Mychael Danna’s score, which plays on this recognition of American lifestyle by borrowing Native American themes, sets up the film’s carefully crafted moodiness. And Lee and film editor Tim Squyres tie the film together in the masterful, interwoven tension of the night of the storm.
Criterion has beautifully restored The Ice Storm, giving full glory to a movie whose sharp blues and greys are evocative of New England Thanksgivings. The film's wonderful soundtrack is the highlight of the sound design, yet strangely, Criterion continues to provide minimal language tracks or subtitling.
Whether or not he knew it at the time, Ang Lee put together an all-star cast, capping old favorites Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, and Sigourney Weaver with the surging young talents of Christina Ricci, Elijah Wood, and Tobey Maguire, whom the director liked enough to cast in his follow-up, the largely underappreciated Ride with the Devil. They are brought together again in a documentary on the set's second disc discussing the making of the film, the highlight of Criterion's two-disc examination of Ice Storm. Featurettes on the film's look and literary inspiration are also well worth a look, giving breadth to this highly literary film.
Change, or the struggle to make change fit into the established system, is Lee's most familiar chord. He struck it loudest in The Ice Storm.