The Ice Storm takes place at the precise moment when the burned-out remnants of the ’60s sexual revolution belatedly limped into the disaffected ’70s suburbia. The centerpiece of the film is a supposedly liberating “key party” that proves otherwise, thanks to long-simmering resentments and inhibitions. Two generations of two families clash during a single disastrous night, beset by heavily portentous bad weather and bad ideas.
Director Ang Lee and screenwriter James Schamus adapt Rick Moody’s novel, in what was either a nightmare or dream come true for art directors and costume designers. The very specific milieu of New Canaan, Connecticut in 1973 is rendered in oranges and browns, with the cast clad in plaids and shaggy hair, and the sets dressed with period flotsam like waterbeds and styrofoam packing peanuts.
Indeed, its overpowering upper-middle-class ’70s tackiness was the primary talking point at the time, and I recall titters from the audience when I first saw it in the theater. The fashions may be unflattering for most of the cast, but it must be noted that Sigourney Weaver looks stunning regardless.
In the 2008 Criterion Collection edition, production designer Mark Friedberg describes recreating his childhood playroom, designed by his architect father. He also incorporated his grandmother’s paintings and his father’s furniture. Realizing the titular ice storm took a couple strategies, depending on the surface, including hair gel, cast resin, and biodegradable goop.
The striking visuals are made even more convincing by the crinkling, crackling sound design. Also of note is the minimalist score by Michael Danna, featuring a Native American flute. The end credits feature another creature of the 1970s: David Bowie’s melancholic re-recorded version of “I Can’t Read.”
The film and novel both cite the Marvel Comics series Fantastic Four, which features a uniquely dysfunctional family unit. The conceit is effective, if a little obvious. Lee and Schamus would later more directly explore this territory in the under-appreciated Hulk (2003). I am also reminded of Todd Field’s Little Children (2006), which also posits that the behavior of adults and their children is not all that different — albeit in a bone-dry satirical tone that makes it a hard movie to like.
The casting for The Ice Storm is excellent all around, particularly for the young actors, who all went places. Tobey Maguire and Elijah Wood would each go on to headline major franchises. The former plays a complex character, perhaps the only one who comes through the evening with his innocence intact. Yes, he had dark designs that wreak havoc, but he pulls back from causing real harm. Christina Ricci is especially perfect here; she appears worldly and cynical beyond her age, and yet simultaneously so young and vulnerable.
Of the four deleted scenes included in the Criterion Collection edition, two foreshadow the fateful key party. With these scenes cut, the party is less signposted as a significant event, and its true nature as a pivotal moment comes more of a surprise:
- Ben (Kevin Kline) at the office, concerned with stagflation. Schamus cut the scene because it was “too funny” – this despite the fact they were under the impression the movie as a whole was going to be funnier than it turned out: uncomfortable and squirmy.
- Elena (Joan Allen) and the reverend at a diner, before the party. Timely gas crisis lines are visible out the window.
- Ben & Elena in bed, mentioning the party again.
- Paul (Maguire) calls Wendy (Ricci) with a “moral dilemma.” He hasn’t been privy to what she’s been up to in his absence, so he doesn’t know she’s probably the wrong person to come to with these kinds of problems.
On the same disc, Rick Moody describes seeing an adaptation of his work as someone else’s interpretation of your dream. Like a translation of a poem into another language, it is patently impossible, and says more about the translator than the original poet.