The Ice Storm was Ang Lee’s first film after Sense and Sensibility – and it somehow outdoes the lush atmospherics of his first English film. Based on the 1994 novel by Rick Moody, the screenplay by James Schamus follows two wealthy families in New Canaan over the Thanksgiving weekend in 1973, with Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, Joan Allen, Tobey Maguire, Christina Ricci, Katie Holmes and Elijah Wood comprising this most 90s of ensemble casts. In the opening scene, Paul (Maguire), a college student returning to New Canaan for the weekend, reflects that “the meaning of the Fantastic Four” was “that your family are your own personal antimatter,” setting the scene for a story that seems to signal the final decline of the 1950s mythology of nuclear hearth and home. Suffused with the Cheeveresque angst of New York commuter towns, and burnished with a melancholy desuetude, Lee’s vision moves from characters to character, and between the younger and older generations, crafting a remarkably evocative period piece in which every texture and tactile detail feels just right, from the beautifully curated décor to the chill of the New Canaan upper crust as they come to terms with the devolution of the 1960s into a more wintry 1970s atmosphere and outlook.
Despite the bleakness and sadness of the story, however, Lee remains compassionate, generous and forgiving to all his characters, marking The Ice Storm as one of the precursors of the New Sincerity that would become so predominant in indie Hollywood in the early 2000s. In part, that’s because of how vulnerable all of these characters seem, perpetually set against a looming circumambience that’s enhanced by the modernist architecture of their respective house, which are themselves even more abstracted by the uniform, wintry woods that stretch between them. Early in the film, one of the chidren reflects that “because of molecules we are connected to the outside world with our bodies,” and that molecular commuinion informs the entire style of the film, which positions bodies in enormous, cavernous spaces that overwhelm them but also affect them in granular and intimate ways. In almost every scene, Lee stretches out space, from the fluid bike rides, to the empty pool at one of the houses, to the surveillance mirror in a local pharmacy, to the long walks through the woods that enjoin his camera to become more mobile with each excursion. Beyond a certain point, the characters’ trajectories settle into so many looping trajectories through the woods, which seem to abstract them from all their conventional and comforting associations, and instead jettison them into a space that produces surreal and unexpected configurations.
In fact, space itself is the main subject of The Ice Storm, much as Lee uses the script as a pretext to explore every possible space in and around the houses, taking us into so many nooks and crannies that the houses seem to splinter as discrete or definite entities, making it quite difficult to distinguish between them, as the two families in the film grow more and more incestuously intertwined. Not only does this enlivened space prevents the film ever feeling like a staid period piece, or a mere exercise in nostalgia, but it often makes the film feel set in the present (even now) since it seems to betoken a postmodern or post-industrial spatial regime that we are only just growing accustomed to, but which is utterly alien to the characters themselves at this formative moment. So alien, in fact, that this new spatial scheme is never articulated except negatively, as a new kind, category or quantum of the space that neither the characters nor the film can properly navigate or even conceptualise. This “new” space only seems to exist in contradistinction to the communal, collective spaces of the 1970s – which feel remote here than in the present day – and tends to be clearest around thresholds, especially the enormous abandoned swimming pool that fascinates Wendy (Ricci) and Mikey (Wood), two of the most haunting, enduring characters in the film.
Virtually all of the adults have moments when they are forced to confront their lives through vast swathes of space – Elena (Allen) when she sees Wendy biking through the town from the panoramic vantage point of a church sale; Ben (Kline) when his mistress Janey (Sigourney Weaver) abruptly leaves him in bed, and then leaves her house, forcing him to wander through every film until he gradually realises she has gone; and Sandy (Adam Hann-Byrd), who responds to his mothers’ aimless drifting by sending model planes out over the vast expanse of woods beyond their balcony, and then exploding them. All of the adults have an inchoate and inadequate response to these spaces, which perpetually seem as if they should bring them to an epiphany, but never quite do. Again, that’s partly because the houses are so disorienting and the woods are so labyrinthine – while the whole film is set in one area, and has a strong local atmosphere, the specificities of its spaces are never properly given to us.
These spaces are even more precipitous for the younger generation, especially when the ice storm hits, and freezes this space into permanence over a single night. Something essential about the 60s spirit freezes irrevocably on this night too, as all the characters lose an authentic and organic connection between their bodies and the spaces around them, since “when it freezes, molecules aren’t meeting.” This freezing revolves around a key party that all the adults attend on Thanksgiving Eve, which brings the logic of the ice storm inside – full of fridges opening, glassware ringing, ice clinking and keys chinking as they’re deposited and then recovered from the bowl at the door. All the children are asleep or passed out while their parents attend this party, which redistributes everyone’s personal trajectories over the course of the night, until the party becomes a synecdoche for the ice storm itself, as the world outside turns brittle as glass, but also fragile and beautiful as a set of crystal champagne flutes.
The film really comes into its own, during this third act, as an ensemble drama in which each character becomes progressively isolated, until everyone is travelling along their own solitary paths. As the key party proceeds, it becomes clear that we’re dealing with two lost generations, and two generations that seemed especially difficult to situate in the 90s – the generation just before and the generation just after the Baby Boomers; that is, the generations displaced and overshadowed by the Baby Boomer project. While the adults here are all slightly too old to have been a part of the counter-culture, the children are too young, creating a shared trepidation around sexuality, which feels equally punitive and transgressive for both of them. Both adults and children are displaced from a Boomer project that sought to normalize the sensuous immersion of body in world under the aegis of its own generational specificity, so the more they imitate counter-cultural rituals, the more alienated they becomes from their own bodies, which is perhaps why all human contact in the film feels tentative, provisional and burnished – pockets of fleeting warmth amidst all the ice and chill.
This inability to situate their bodies in the world in the same way the Boomers before and after them makes these two lost generations peculiarly sensitive to the broader slippage between body and space – and the emergence of an inhuman postmodern spatial field – that the film charts. Perhaps that’s why all of the characters feel old before their time, especially the children, who are all oddly and eerily precocious, from Paul, who is obsessed with Dostoyevsky, to Wendy, who is obsessed with Nixon, to Mikey (Wood), who seems to exist in a world of his own, to Sandy, who seems like a haunted Vietnam vet. In the final scene, when we loop back to John arriving home after the tragic events of the weekend have unfolded, and greeting his father at the New Canaan platform, Lee beautifully distills this bodily and spatial alienation into an intergenerational grief that can’t be articulated directly or even conceptually – just affectively, through an inchoate flash of a future that’s already foreclosed.