A profound meditation on what it means to be frozen in place.
What happened to the great American suburban drama? Exceptional films in the genre appeared from the ‘60s to the mid-‘00s and revealed the apathy, suffering and even danger lurking beneath the veneer of the American dream. Since then, there have been attempts at new, innovative suburban drama, but nothing has come close to matching these greats.
Ang Lee’s ‘70s-set The Ice Storm is perhaps the best of this bunch. Released to critical acclaim and but audience indifference in 1997, The Ice Storm finds the perfect balance between the apathetic pain of suburban success and the dark humor of actual suburban behavior. Driven by Lee’s surgical direction, a biting script from frequent Lee-collaborator James Schamus and top-notch performances by the entire cast, The Ice Storm achieves the dual task of exemplifying the best of late-‘90s filmmaking and the worst of early-‘70s American life.
The Ice Storm primarily follows two Connecticut families over the Thanksgiving holiday in 1973. The Hoods (Kevin Kline and Joan Allen) and the Carvers (Sigourney Weaver and Jamey Sheridan) are dysfunctional couples with dysfunctional children, yet this dysfunction plays out in myriad ways. Extra-marital affairs, teenage antics, swinging, death and further disaster slide coldly across the screen, but almost nothing truly registers. It all happens through a distant lens (aided by Frederick Elmes’ chilly cinematography) alongside a deceptively manipulative score from frequent Lee collaborator Mychael Danna, and nothing that happens really seems to matter. Tears spill, sure, but they’re crocodile tears, shed for show.
Though hers isn’t the central performance, Sigourney Weaver’s turn is the film’s most emblematic. Her Janey Carver is portrayed as profoundly unfeeling, particularly when contrasted with Kline’s angsty Ben Hood, but Janey is actually just a woman making the best she can out of the dire circumstances of the American suburban nightmare that so many millions have found themselves sucked into. Somehow Lego’d into a “perfect” family, a perfect home and perfect community, Janey continues to push outward, looking for sensation, for something other than the circumstances she finds herself in.
Janey Carver is a precursor to Ennis Del Mar, a character from a later, more popular Lee film: 2005’s Brokeback Mountain. Like Ennis, Janey is trapped within her role in her family and in society at large, as no matter how she rebels against it the universe bites back, leading to outward apathy. We’re tricked, towards the end of The Ice Storm, into thinking that perhaps Janey is oblivious to surroundings, but that is not only wrong, it is actually the opposite of Janey’s true character. At the end of the film, Janey has sought refuge within herself, cocooning herself in order to push out the pain of her existence, just as Ennis does in his constant denials of his true nature in Brokeback Mountain.
Despite the similarities between Janey and Ennis, as a whole The Ice Storm more resembles Lee’s later, similarly brilliant Lust, Caution in terms of its approach. Both are outwardly stiff films despite their significant sexual content, which is exactly the point. Sex in Lust, Caution is a layered act of politics and power and sex in The Ice Storm is a too-late attempt at lighting a match in the wind-scarred landscapes of the characters’ lives. Powerfully, Lee takes the futility of such attempts at connections beyond the adults in The Ice Storm, and shows the trauma inflicted on children trying to mimic their parents’ failures.
Though suburban drama still flourishes on television with shows like “The Americans,” in terms of film it really reached its peak with The Ice Storm, a profound meditation on what it means to be frozen in place. Director Ang Lee not only picked the perfect setting and performers to convey his point, he also picked just the right time period in which to present the inner darkness of people with no outlet for their inner selves. Though underappreciated, then and now, it still stands as a pinnacle of its genre over 20 years after its release.