Top Fifty Films of the 90s — Number Fifteen


#15 — The Ice Storm (Ang Lee, 1997)
I should probably start by acknowledging that any film which uses an old issue of the Marvel Comics series The Fantastic Four to illustrate how dysfunction can envelop and cripple a family is playing directly to my soft spot. The idea is introduced via voiceover narration by the character Paul Carver as he sits on a stalled train bound for New Canaan, Connecticut. He goes to school in Manhattan, but it’s Thanksgiving weekend and he’s headed home, a place that’s held by a chill as deep as the one produced by the winter storm that’s bound his transportation to the tracks. In the comic he’s reading, the elastic scientist Reed Richards has been forced to shut down his young son’s mind as the boy’s unpredictable powers swell out of control. This naturally leads to all sorts of strife among the familial members of the superheroic quartet. Part of the brilliance of Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm is that even the splendidly dramatic excesses of that dynamically drawn adventure look like small matters next to the spiritual death by degrees being endured by the shell-shocked suburbanites who populate the film.

The film is based on Rick Moody’s acclaimed 1994 novel, which was adapted for the screen by Ang Lee’s enduring collaborator James Schamus. It is set in the early nineteen-seventies at the point when the corruption of the Watergate scandal and the wearying disaster of the Vietnam War were rending the fabric of American society. In Moody’s conception, it was also the point when the free love ethos of the late sixties finally migrated from the hippie utopia of big city green spaces to the claustrophobic, antiseptic modern dwellings in the affluent outskirts. Lee examines this deviation in the culture with an appropriately awkward intimacy that in turn generates a tremulous energy. As acted out by these turtleneck bedecked aspiring swingers, it’s no bold proclamation of personal exemption from society’s antiquated mores. Instead, it’s a painful and pitiful escape attempt from middle-aged malaise further darkened by an American experience no longer infused with promise. Their erotic fumblings at a boozy key party are no more adept than those being attempted by their unattended children back home. Whether teen or adult, everyone is merely play-acting.

Lee approaches this comically bleak emotional terrain with the same sympathetic understanding of the foibles and concealed grace notes of human nature that was the common denominator of his previous films. With The Ice Storm, he melds that quality with a mesmerizing visual acuity, collaborating with cinematographer Frederick Elmes to depict the staggering beauty of a world freezing over, every bit of it growing hard to the touch. It’s so starkly lovely, in fact, that the performances of the incredibly skilled cast–led by Kevin Kline and Joan Allen, each uniquely tapping into the low grind dissatisfaction of an uneasy existence–are all the more vital. They work with Lee to sidestep the risk of the film developing its own impermeable frost, the sort of distancing chilliness that can develop when the images are so pristine and precisely realized. Lee is unmistakably making art, but he never forgets it needs to have a pulse. And so it does, right up to its devastating final shot.

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