Written by: James Schamus based on the novel by Rick Moody
Directed by: Ang Lee
Toward the end of The Ice Storm is a scene that metaphorically captures this film of 1970s family dysfunction, suburban angst, and coming of age. Electrical wires, too long encased in ice, finally snap, leaving a live wire flailing dangerously.
This film, set in 1973 Connecticut, centers around the Hood family: Ben, Elena, 14-year-old Wendy, and 16-year-old Paul. The oppressive silence between Ben and Elena guards them from the unspoken realization that their marriage is about to implode. The long-frozen emotions in their relationship, of course, are the elephant in the room. The kids talk about it, tentatively, when their parents are of of earshot. But when Ben or Elena walks in, you can feel the air being sucked out of the room.
Their lives are intertwined with the Carvers: Jim and Janey and their sons Mike and Sandy. There’s an uncomfortable vibe between Ben Hood and Janey Carver when the couples socialize together. And Jim seems virtually invisible to his wife and sons.
As a side note, there was a moment when a noise erupted at the eerily institutional looking Carver house — it sounded like gunshots. I felt sick for a moment, thinking: “Oh no…poor Jim, the invisible man, just killed himself! But no; it was just Sandy blowing up his model planes.
The sexual dynamics of the group take center stage. We see this reflected in 14-year-old Wendy. She engages in innocent, awkward experimentation with the boys next door. Yet behind the innocence, we see an emerging fierceness and aggression in the way she uses her blossoming sexuality. I found it a bit unnerving. Oh, Wendy. The adults in your milieu have taught you well, haven’t they?
Having been a child in the 70’s myself, I found this portrayal of the era interesting. I think they got the zeitgeist of the period about right, though it was a bit heavy handed, possibly for satirical effect. Watergate. Adults drinking copious amounts of alcohol. Sexual liberation. Deeply regrettable choices in fashion and interior decorating. Parents awkwardly trying to guide their children in a society that no longer makes sense to them.
One thing that I found weirdly humorous, painful, and probably spot-on was watching the palpable discomfort of adult couples “swinging” at a party. It was obvious that everyone wanted to act like randomly banging other people’s spouses was cool and titillating. But seriously? Suffice it to say no one looked like they were having fun. Reactions ranged from uncomfortably awkward to soul-crushingly miserable and sad.
This is an exceptionally well-crafted film with gorgeous cinematography and outstanding acting by the whole cast. There were many things it got right, including the difficult, intertwined worlds of middle-aged parents and adolescent children, the mingled curiosity, lust, and loneliness that fuel early teenage sexual experimentation, and the well-intentioned efforts of parents to shepherd their kids through adolescence when they’ve lost their own moral compass. It’s a vivid portrayal of a relationship precariously teetering, with the knowledge that it’ll be shattered by a single honest word. What happens when it finally explodes and all that’s left is trying to punish each other? And when something finally happens that forces these adults to act like grown-ups — what’s next?