As we're all aware, the '70s were a simple time of disco, sex, and pet rocks. People really knew how to have fun back then and weren't afraid to do so. Yes, it was our last gasp of unfettered hedonism before Reagan, before AIDS, before Bon Joviright before everything went straight to hell.
Well, at least that's what we've been telling ourselves lately. We've descended into a '70s fetish that is equal parts nostalgia and fantasy. Recent movies like Boogie Nights and Dazed and Confused have celebrated the supposed innocence of the era, while magazines and books (just out: Ben is Dead's Retrohell) revel in the era's cultural minutia (toe socks, mood rings, Wacky Packages, et. al.) to the point where the decade seems much more fun than the time we're living in right now.
But there was another '70s that most people seem to want to forget. As the hippie era drew its last gasp in the early part of the decade, all hell was breaking loose. Vietnam continued to suck away at the nation's jugular. Nixon broke laws and lied about it with criminal brazenness. Pollution seemed out of control, swallowing up our water, our air, our forests. Race relations teetered on the verge of explosive violence. The energy crisis struck fear in the heart of the auto industry. People wore lots of brown and ochre polyester. Geez, what was there to be happy about?
The Ice Storm stakes out this narrow slice of dark American history as its setting, giving us a painful look at a family in disarray, one that is searching for a unity that not even its own country feels. Director Ang Lee (Sense and Sensibility, Eat Drink Man Woman) has crafted a film of beautiful textures and remote emotionsremarkable in its poetic structure yet ultimately as distant as its characters.
Kevin Kline stars as Ben Hood, a would-be "hip" dad who barely presides over his family in New Canaan, Connecticut. No matter how much he jokes or smiles, it's clear he cannot make a connection to his frigid wife, Elena (Joan Allen). While he tries to find some sort of passion by having an affair with his swinging neighbor Janey Carver (a commanding Sigourney Weaver), his wife delves into self-help books while burying her frustration with her inability to liberate herself. She suspects his affair, and he suspects that she suspects, yet they can barely bring themselves to actually vocalize their dissatisfaction.
Meanwhile, their children are facing their own sexual and emotional difficulties. Christina Ricci plays daughter Wendy, a rebellious pre-teen who is anti-everything. She toys with Carver's sons, fumbling at her sexual awakening and toying with theirs. Tobey Maguire plays son Paul, a 16-year-old preppie who seems the most well-adjusted, though he takes most of his life lessons from a Fantastic Four comic book.
Lee spends the first half of the film developing a sense of place and time, evoking them with a straightforward eye for accuracy as opposed to cheap nostalgic laughs. And this is how the film has been marketed, as a look back at how sexual mores were changing in the newly swinging '70s. But even more so, it's a study of an American family that is self-destructing as quietly as possible. All of the Hoods' conversations tread lightly near the surface, diffused by dialogue from the ever-present television set. Each member can barely look at another directly, and any real confrontation is avoided.
All of these characters' unspoken angst is coalesced by an ice storm that attacks one night. Elena finally confronts Ben as they inadvertently attend a "key party"one where couples place their keys in a bowl and wives leave with whomever's keys they pluck. Paul travels to the New York townhouse of a schoolmate he has a crush on. Wendy tackles her sexuality even more directly at the Carver home. As emotions fracture, Lee gives us constant visual references to the storm outside as ice forms over every surface; albeit hauntingly beautiful, the symbolism does get to be a bit much (and puzzling to boothow the heck did they freeze up entire trees?).
Finally, as tragedy strikes, a thaw arrives and emotions come trickling out. While fascinating in its accuracyboth in terms of period and family dynamicsThe Ice Storm is a difficult movie to savor. The characters are so cold and remote, you'll probably want to avoid relating to them. But Lee has constructed this examination of family fractiousness so exquisitely, it doesn't appear as clinical as it feels.