The Ice Storm (Ang Lee, 1997)
Ang Lee's status as one of the more important directors of this generation has been solidified by his existential swordplay adventure Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Academy Award-nominated homosexual romantic weeper Brokeback Mountain (2005). Of course, there's that failed yet interesting attempt to put comic book hero the Hulk into philosophical perspective and a bunch of relationship comedies set within his Asian-American cultural context. In 1997, Ang Lee directed The Ice Storm from a screenplay adapted from a Rick Moody novel by his long-time collaborator James Schamus. The moody drama about the lives of two dysfunctional suburban families, I thought, is Ang Lee's most accomplished film.
Thanksgiving week and the Hoods are preparing for the arrival of their son, Paul (Tobey Maguire). What seems like a normal suburban middle-class family is in fact a bunch of discordant relationships surely bursting with repressed emotions. Ben (Kevin Kline) and Elena (Joan Allen) have put off marriage counseling in the guise that their marriage is actually going very well. Their fourteen year old daughter Wendy (Christina Ricci) is experimenting with her sexuality with her boyfriend, Mikey (Elijah Wood), one of the two sons of the Hoods' nextdoor neighbors, the Carvers. The Carvers are in a similar mess. The patriarch Jim (Jamey Sheridan) is always away for business, while his wife Janey (Sigourney Weaver), taking advantage of her husband's frequent prolonged leaves, maintains an affair with Ben. Sandy, the youngest of the Carver siblings, is an introverted mess.
The Ice Storm is a complicated relationship piece whose success hinges on atmosphere and mood. The screenplay by Schamus is pretty detailed and the dialogue externally calm yet brimming with context. There's a curious absence of rhythm in the film. Instead, Lee allows the events to flow, and the characters to trigger what I think is a natural reaction in the film's setting. Interestingly, the film's backdrop is during the 70's where America is facing a political crisis with Richard Nixon's administration. More interestingly, the adults in the film care more for alcohol and swingers' games rather than the state of the nation, while it is the children who follow-up the political weather. A visible boundary separates the concerns of the adults and the children, and as a result, creates a hindrance to normal familial functions.
Lee depicts with painful clarity the irony that subsists in American suburbia: where discontent, boredom, repression, and amorality displaces the human need to actually communicate. In a telling scene between Ben Hood and Janey Carver, Ben tries to woo Janey into small talk. Janey boredly replies "I don't need another husband." Even the seemingly amoral act of infidelity has turned into a mere bartering of their naked bodies in the efforts of extinguishing their primal and animalistic needs.
Lee begins the film with a narration by Paul Hood about how the family unit is one's biggest enemy, basing his observations from a Fantastic Four comic book where Mr. Fantastic had to sacrifice his son. It is an interesting note from Paul, who is perhaps the most disassociated character in the film. His perceptions are based mostly from the news he gathers from his sister, and the usual external quirks he observes during his short visits. I believe that Paul's observation runs counter to the two suburban families' experience. Unlike the comic book tale, the complexities of these family's dysfunction do not arise out of the members' superpowers, or in the real world and its inherent personalities, but by a society that has lost all notion of what is moral, as observed in a larger perspective of the nation's politics. Unlike the superheroes which are given the power to do as they please without the otherworldly guidance of fate and cosmic design, the characters of this film would go on doing their thing if it weren't for a sudden impetus for change, the titular ice storm, that would serve saving grace for the two families.