Ice Storm, The (1997)

Director:  Ang Lee
Cast:  Kevin KlineJoan AllenSigourney Weaver, Tobey Maguire, Christina Ricci, Elijah Wood, Katie Holmes
Plot:  1973, suburban Connecticut: middle class families experimenting with casual sex, drink, etc., find their lives out of control.

Genre:  Drama

Awards:  Won Best Screenplay and nom. for Palme d'Or (Cannes).  Nom. for 1 Golden Globe - Best Supporting Actress
Runtime:  112min
Rating:  M18 for sexuality and drug use, including scenes involving children, and for language.

“Your family is the void you emerge from, and the place you return to when you die.”

Think of Ang Lee, and a handful of award-winning films come to mind, most commonly Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Brokeback Mountain (2005) and Life of Pi (2012).  While these are excellent films, they are incomparable to The Ice Storm, a peerless work of art that I feel is the Taiwanese-born director’s most perfect film to date, and one of the greatest American dramas of the 1990s. 

However, it is strangely underrated or even under-the-radar, perhaps overshadowed by the director’s more recognizable achievements.  I sincerely encourage you to see The Ice Storm because it is one of those rare pictures where everything – the acting, direction, tone, music, and more, comes together to create a profoundly resonating experience.

Resonance is such a powerful effect that only few works of cinema are able to achieve – best exemplified by undisputed classics like De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948), Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953) and Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955).  Adapted from the 1994 novel of the same name by Rick Moody, The Ice Storm is the contemporary answer to the above-mentioned films. 

Set in America in the 1970s, an era best described as dazed-and-confused after the wild-and-freewheeling 1960s, Lee’s film is an astute chronicle of the lives of two middle-class families over the course of a Thanksgiving weekend in a seemingly self-contained suburban town.  To say any more about the plot would leave you little room to unearth the drama in this gem of a film.  The ensemble cast of Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Tobey Maguire, Christina Ricci, Elijah Wood, Katie Holmes, and many more, deliver top-notch acting work with superb chemistry. 

But what is most impressive is Lee’s handling of the film’s tone – a nuanced, reflective, and occasionally fateful setting of mood, somewhat alluding to the impending ice storm that would take center stage in the final act, a natural event that functions in the same capacity as a similar, albeit much more biblical, occurrence in P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia (1999).  Mychael Danna’s (Life of Pi) music is evocative, in particular the use of the Native American flute, and Frederick Elmes’ (Blue Velvet, 1986) cinematography employs greyish tones to reflect a lonely collective existence.

Sexuality is a key theme in The Ice Storm, in particular the impact of the sexual revolution on families.  Parents have extramarital sexual affairs while their children experiment with kissing, being naked and possibly having sex with the opposite gender.  There is an almost too casual liberty of thought and action manifesting in Lee’s film as each beautifully (or tragically) developed character tries to find his or her moral compass in a world characterized by alternating feelings of hope and despair. 

The Ice Storm deconstructs the American family in a way film critic James Berardinelli has called “perceptive”.  The characters are trapped in their individual predicaments – who knows what their futures hold?  In the final shot, Lee hints at the possible reconciliation of the American family unit… but we can never be sure, for it could also mark the beginning of a declining America in a state of flux, one riddled with confusion and uncertainty. 

Verdict:  One of the most profoundly resonant works of the 1990s, this underrated, tone-specific drama is arguably Ang Lee's finest achievement as a filmmaker.


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