There’s a seemingly minor image that’s stuck with me since first seeing Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm: Kevin Kline’s Ben Hood cracking a tray of ice. Firstly, it’s a weird ice tray, with a built-in lever and colored a sickly shade of green—a modern, mildly absurd design for a man who wants very desperately to be modern. The action itself—breaking the ice—is more important, as that’s what Ben wishes he were doing with his family, friends, and neighbors. In fact, everyone in this somber study of the “me” generation is fumbling toward human connection, but most of the time, the adults are busy being bored and sinful, while their kids are taken up with puberty, anxiety, and, well, Nixon.
But about that ice tray. In his best films, Lee builds a palpable, engulfing atmosphere out of period sounds, ideas, and bric-a-brac, making for distinct spaces that feel alert to the inner angst of his characters. Its immersive effectiveness is made of more than the Thai stick, the Jim Croce record, the Buick Riviera, or the littering ad with the tearful Native American. It’s just as much about the way Ben walks around his home like the cock of the walk while wearing a turtleneck under his casual dress shirt, or the way his wife, Elena (Joan Allen), gazes at Fear of Flying at a library book sale, but doesn’t pick it up. It’s in the way their son, Paul (Tobey Maguire), dashes for the last train out of Grand Central and how his sister, Wendy (Christina Ricci), awkwardly makes out with Mikey (Elijah Wood), the doomed boy next door. The director’s world of 1973 seems just alien enough to be exciting, but doesn’t busy itself with flaunting its exactness or constricting the narrative with too much of-the-times lingo.
We catch Ben and Elena toward the end of a long-disintegrating marriage, emotionally miles away from their children and just barely holding onto their parental authority. Lee’s New Canaanites are largely adrift in their easy privilege and luxury, only coming together for a climactic key party during the titular visit from Mother Nature. And though Lee takes pleasure in detailing their dullness, disconnect, and shallow indulgences, he works with the uniformly excellent cast to bring these selfish creatures to vivid, haunted life.
Indeed, there’s a sadness that hangs over every element of the film like the many icicles that line the gutters and roofs of Lee’s Connecticut, and the director quietly connects this with an obsession with performance. Notice how beautifully Kline’s Ben seeks out all the wrong words to try and discuss masturbation with Paul, attempting to connect with him through broad, impersonal language. It’s as if he were testing out the speech for an all-audiences PSA. There’s a similar moment when Mikey’s father, Jim (Jamey Sheridan), attempts to sidestep the fact that his kids haven’t noticed he’s been on a business trip by trying to explain how neat his work is. These are people seeking intimacy without taking any attention off themselves, and it would play as little more than a familiar riff on the aimlessness of the Nixon era if Lee didn’t also see hope, despite the film’s grim conclusions.
At first glance, Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver), Mikey’s mother, doesn’t look all that much like a beacon of light, what with her drinking, flirting, and that slinky wardrobe. But whereas Allen’s Elena is still at a remove from liberation, Janey has sunk her teeth into her sheltered life and is far more forward about her desires. Early on, during a dinner party, Janey all but touts the fact that she’s having an affair with Ben by continuously and comfortably dabbing the wine stain on the crotch of his trousers. Even better is when she reminds Ben, lost in golf talk, that she’s in no need of a second husband. She fully owns herself, whether having an abrupt heart to heart with Wendy or picking out a hot young thing to take home at the key party, and Weaver imbues her with a well-honed, hard-earned cynicism and a startling directness. Lee utilizes panels from a Fantastic Four comic to underline Paul’s fractured feelings about his family life, but The Ice Storm proves most powerful when it focuses on the slow emergence of the invisible women no longer contently trapped in the suburbs.
This release represents the clearest visual transfer of Ang Lee’s film to date, but it’s by no means a top-shelf Criterion release. There are various instances of clear haloing and it’s easy to see the remnants of the print’s digital polish, including some color softening and light sharpening corrections. Thankfully, none of this is hugely distracting, as detail is stronger here than on the DVD release, with the melancholic hues of grays, blues, purples, and light greens appearing as potently dour as ever. And though the audio only gets a DTS 2.0 Master Audio update, it’s a much clearer advancement than the visuals: Mychael Danna’s score sounds grander, James Schamus’s dialogue is crisper and clearer, and the sound effects are completely immersive.
The same audio commentary that was recorded for Criterion’s DVD release of the film is featured here, and it remains a fantastic listen. Lee and Schamus share plenty of anecdotes, including why the shots in the pharmacy proved so troublesome, while detailing various parts of the production (the adaptation, casting, physical effects, era detail, etc.). The cast repeats a great deal of these production stories in the "Weathering the Storm" featurette, but they also lend further clarity to Lee’s directing style and how he communicates with actors. The interview with Rick Moody is very interesting and surprisingly thorough, much like the aesthetic discussions in the "The Look of The Ice Storm" featurette. The deleted scenes prove more fascinating than most cutting-room-floor fodder, especially the stuff between Elena and the reverend. There’s also a videotaped post-screening discussion between Lee and Schamus at the Museum of the Moving Image that covers Lee’s entire career. A booklet, featuring an exceptional appreciation of Lee’s film from Bill Krohn, is also included.
Ang Lee’s aching study of the "me" generation provides a stunning array of period detail to give distinct form to the social disconnect and discomfort of the Nixon era, though its Blu-ray premiere doesn’t prove to be a banner release from Criterion.