Saturday, May 30, 2009
The Ice Storm (1997) A Film by Ang Lee
Fate is the engine that drives The Ice Storm and its cast of characters - the members of two Connecticut upper middle-class suburban families - into a flurry of entanglement that proves devastating. The touch of magic realism that brews beneath the spot-on period piece naturalism should come as no surprise in an Ang Lee film (the director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and is all the more respectable for its subtle deployment, the opposite of which contributed to the bloat of a film like American Beauty, another examination of the effects of suburban blues.
The Ice Storm, an adaption of Rick Moody's acclaimed novel, is set in 1973, a few years after the massive cultural and sexual revolution that occurred in the late 1960's. The Hood's and the Carver's are still living within this jostled cultural landscape, either fostering adulterous or criminal habits or experimenting with sex, alcohol, and drugs. Ben Hood (Kevin Kline) is frequenting the Carver house for afternoon delights with the bored wife Janey (Sigourney Weaver), thus triggering simmering suspicion in Elena Hood (Joan Allen). All of their children have uncertain romantic or scandalous pursuits: the rebellious Wendy Hood (Christina Ricci) speaks casually about sexual encounters with her friends at school and is secretly admired by Sandy Carver (Adam Hann-Byrd), to whom she makes the offer, "I'll show you mine if you show me yours.", Sandy's spacey brother Mikey (Elijah Wood) uses Wendy for strictly experimental purposes, and Paul Hood (Tobey Maguire) has "that feeling" for a fellow student with knowledge of Dostoevsky and existentialism but with a serious aptitude for heavy drug usage. They are all considerably unsure of their actions, a sentiment that is mirrored by their parents. Ben knows what he's doing is wrong but is too shallow and immersed in himself to properly inform his wife who stubbornly remains silent until the situation intensifies.
The film is structured modularly; to an extent, the scenes that make up the middle portion of the film (all occurring during a Thanksgiving weekend) could be rearranged without risking a loss of clarity. Lee opens the film on the night of the ice storm, revealing small fragments, shifts backwards, and returns to the storm for the final act. Therefore, the motif of ice is omnipresent, with there being nicely detailed shots of freezer trays scattered throughout. Water can frequently stand in as a symbol for sex, in its inexorable renewals and flow, so what exists for the characters is a kind of sexual freeze, a reduction of the sexual act to something that is rigid, cold, devoid of feeling, and ultimately physical. Because sex and sexual anxiety is the source of immaturity and much of the unspoken distress that the characters (both young and old) feel, the ice storm is somewhat of a karma device. It inevitably causes a death that is part of one of nature's domino effects.
To visually convey this metaphorical depth, Lee wisely chooses to not do a tremendous amount with his camera; instead he only occasionally provides gentle shots of the ice frozen solid to tree branches, and more tellingly will shoot through windows at his characters, the precipitation on the windows shrouding a mosaic of the outdoors reflected against the glass and the scene inside to evoke the double lives of his confused souls. The rich cast, made up of established Hollywood actors (Joan Allen being the highlight) and promising newcomers who have only currently become stars (i.e. Tobey Maguire and Elijah Wood), does a stellar job of bringing this ennui to life. Christina Ricci's performance is especially fantastic. With its simultaneous period relevance and timelessness (ancient Native American flute reverberates on the soundtrack), The Ice Storm is the most important film of Ang Lee's career.