Be Careful! It’s Slippery In Here: Weathering THE ICE STORM
20 November 2011
In 1997, Ang Lee made The Ice Storm, a film capturing the dysfunctional relationships within families and between neighbors over Thanksgiving weekend 1973. Set amid political scandal and the sexual revolution, The Ice Storm follows the Hood and Carver families, of affluent New Canaan, Connecticut, as they weather a wicked wintery storm that literally wreaks havoc on their community, while symbolically representing the chilling havoc these characters wreak on themselves and one another.
Cinematically, Lee creates a film that cannot be simply watched; instead, The Ice Storm must be experienced by its viewers. And, as if in the storm, viewers are expected, at times, to lose their balance when trying to weather the film. While The Ice Storm frequently engages its viewers with humor and raw intimacy, there are other moments in the film that unnerve viewers, like an unexpected slip on black ice. Thus, what is remarkable about The Ice Storm is how tangled viewers become in it. The film plays with its viewers’ emotions, which is ultimately what makes The Ice Storm and unforgettable experience.
One of the most humorous moments in The Ice Storm is when Wendy (Christina Ricci) and Mikey (Elijah Wood) are in the Carver’s basement and Wendy stumbles upon a Richard Nixon mask. After she puts it over her head, she turns to Mikey and says she is willing to “fool around” with him. Seeing this young girl’s body beneath an oversized caricature mask of Richard Nixon, with her big eyes peering out, making clear she wants to see but not be seen, adds innocence and humor to this coming of age moment. Furthermore, as the scene progresses, Lee captures the two teenagers fumbling around with each other—of course, never looking each other in the eye—with frankness and integrity; the teenagers grope around on the floor awkwardly, Mikey looking as confused and scared as he is excited. This realism, with a splash of humor, invites the audience in to a touching, honest moment in the film.
Yet, just moments after the young lovers’ tryst in the Carver basement, another scene unfolds pulling the audience in an entirely different direction, one subversively barren of innocence and humor. Ben (Kevin Kline), Wendy’s father, catches the two teenagers fooling around and demands Wendy leave with him immediately. On their walk home, the father tells his daughter he is not really concerned about what he walked in on is 14-year-old daughter doing, but feels Mikey “isn’t worth the mess.” For the most part, Wendy is ignoring her father’s lecture, as one would expect a teenager to do. But, unexpectedly, Ben asks his daughter, “Are your feet cold?” When she stops and shakes her head yes, he replies, “Come on, I’ll carry you,” and, with that, she wraps her legs around him and he lifts her up and begins carrying her home.
The film lures the audience in with laughter and realism, making viewers feel a sense of comfort with the honesty revealed between the two young teenagers, but then, without warning, the film rips the comfort away. The inappropriate display between Wendy and Ben disarms the audience. Like the ice storm depicted in the narrative, the film is beautiful but slippery. Juxtaposing the scene between Wendy and Mikey with the scene between Wendy and her father, Ben, throws off the audience’s balance, as though viewers hit a patch of ice.
Moreover, the film also plays with the audience through language. Almost all dialogue spoken in the film is useless, rambling nonsense. Ben, as an example, says nothing in the entire film; literally, if he were not to speak the audience would not miss any vital information. Conversely, Elena (Joan Allen) does make profound statements, but her expression is often fragmented; her dialogue could be useful, but it is frozen. However, Elena never misses an opportunity to point out the foolishness of other character’s dialogue in the film. For example, in the two conversations Father Edwards (Michael Cumpsty) attempts with her, Elena immediately takes aim at his arrogant and ignorant banter, pointing out, for the audience, how meaningless dialogue is in the film. Yet, even though dialogue is worthless in The Ice Storm, language is not.
The film is bookended with Paul (Tobey Maguire) on the train from New York back to Connecticut. With him is a Fantastic Four comic book he reads and reflects on. The Fantastic Four comic has no literal connection to the film, yet the voiceovers of Paul contemplating the comic book characters offer profound, insightful, and deep contemplations on life, family, and death, which, metaphorically speak about the film’s characters. This use of language is, by far, the most meaningful and poignant the film offers.
Significantly, in the final scene, the Hood family picks up Paul at the train station when he finally arrives back from New York. When the family gets in the car, Ben turns around to his children, and the audience braces for another irrelevant monologue from the wordy father. However, nothing comes out of Ben’s mouth; instead, he begins to cry. Elena says Ben’s name and puts her hand on his back, but, aside from that, no one moves or says a word. The Ice Storm is a difficult film to endure, yet, though this ending, hope is restored. Finally, Ben stopped talking and began feeling. The film played with viewers from this start, in large part though its use of dialogue and language, but now, in the conclusion, the storm has passed and the characters, as well as the audience, can thaw and feel again.