The Ice Storm begins and ends with a train making its way home to New Canaan, Connecticut. Its heavy wheels crack the frozen glaze on the tracks as it passes trees that droop under the weight of glistening icicles. Every frame of The Ice Storm feels glacial and depressed. The title event rattles the windows of the perfect suburban houses; inside, the people ignore the storm, just as they ignore the frigid emotional climate in their living rooms and bedrooms.
The movie, set in 1973, is easily the best of the current crop of retro-’70s films. I grew up in the ’70s, and I loathe ’70s nostalgia — the disco, the polyester, the sideburns, that ugly Mary Tyler Moore Show font, Star Wars — I hate it all, and The Ice Storm looks back with refreshing detachment. It doesn’t chuckle affectionately and say, “Boy, people were goofy back then.” No, it stares through a microscope and says, “People were pathetic back then.” You see the sideburns and the sweater vests, but you don’t laugh much. It’s not funny, it’s sad.
Director Ang Lee, who showed great skill at depicting repression in Eat Drink Man Woman and Sense and Sensibility, isn’t as kind to the story’s two suburban families as their creator, Rick Moody, was in his 1994 book. Lee and screenwriter James Schamus have some compassion for these soul-sick New Canaanites but don’t hold out much hope. These people are beyond help; they push themselves into “liberation” but trip over their own psychological shackles.
The Ice Storm follows the Hoods and the Carvers (renamed from the novel’s Williamses, maybe in tribute to Raymond Carver) as they dabble half-heartedly in trangression. Ben Hood (Kevin Kline) is having a joyless affair with Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver); Ben’s wife Elena (Joan Allen) is a shoplifter, as is her gloomy daughter Wendy (Christina Ricci), who distracts herself with Janey’s horny sons Mikey (Elijah Wood) and Sandy (Adam Hann-Byrd). Their misery is intricate and intertwined. The worse they feel, the worse they behave, which makes them feel even worse — the familiar vicious circle.
There’s some humor in Ben’s and Janey’s idea of parental advice; they’re so clueless they’d be better off not telling their kids anything. But sadness lurks beneath the humor. You sense that the adults want to be good parents — they’ve screwed up everything else — but they honestly don’t know how, and this is the best they can do. So the kids are already depressed and disillusioned. Their awkward sexual experimentation mirrors the queasy wife-swapping “key party,” which is in full swing as the rain freezes on the cars outside.
Lee has an impeccable cast. Kline makes Ben selfish, confused, but still decent — there’s a touching image of Ben carrying Wendy home through the wet, snowy woods — and Allen, a great and subtle actress, suggests flashes of ungovernable wildness in Elena (what’s up with that shoplifting?). And Christina Ricci, passing into adulthood, is going to be a major reason to stay interested in movies. All the characters’ self-disgust seems to crystallize in Wendy, and Ricci conveys it almost wordlessly. The Ice Storm is a rich and elegant drama on its own, but it will be remembered for Ricci’s first adult role. That the role is a 14-year-old girl only adds to the movie’s poignance. Kids couldn’t stay kids for long even back in 1973.