If a director is lucky enough to find success in Hollywood, chances are they will stick with whatever works – it’s the rare director who is talented and courageous enough to even try to tackle different genres, let alone succeed at everything they do. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule, the most famous being Steven Spielberg, who relishes new challenges and venturing into unknown territory. But Spielberg has the benefit of being able to take chances, being arguably the most successful director of his generation who can afford to take risks (and failing) every so often. Which is what makes the vision, courage and risk-taking of Ang Lee so unique, on so many different levels.
From the very beginning of Lee’s career, he has tackled the gay rom-com (The Wedding Banquet (1993)), the family saga (Eat Drink Man Woman (1994)), the classic English period literary adaptation (Sense and Sensibility (1995)), the dark 70s American suburbia drama (The Ice Storm (1997)) the Western (Ride With The Devil (1999)) and the fantasy/adventure/kung fu masterpiece Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). And that’s not even mentioning the superhero film, Hulk (2003), the heart wrenching drama Brokeback Mountain (2005), the fantastical adventure Life of Pi (2012) or the sci-fi action flick, Gemini Man (2019). Not even Spielberg has dared to cut such a wide swatch of genres. Ang Lee is the single most daring and challenging director working today, able to deliver any genre at any time—and get recognized for it. Lee has been nominated for the Oscar for Best Director three times, winning twice (the same number of wins as Spielberg), for Brokeback Mountain and Life of Pi, and, at just 68, it feels like he’s just getting started.
What’s most staggering about Ang Lee’s films is the vast impact they have had. He’s not only prolific, he’s careful in his choices, as nearly every film he makes gets critical acclaim and must go on to carry home truckloads of awards. Emma Thompson’s only Oscar (so far) is for her screenplay for Lee’s film Sense and Sensibility. Three of his films have been nominated for Best Foreign Film and three for Best Picture. It’s nearly impossible to name an Ang Lee film that isn’t Oscar-nominated or critically-acclaimed.
So, when it comes to picking a single favorite from Lee’s catalog, it’s no easy task. There is my natural attraction to Brokeback Mountain, the powerful, moving and deeply effective portrait of repression that delivers on every single level, but, strangely enough, that film which I adore with every fiber of my being (and yes, it was totally robbed of the Best Picture Oscar) is not even my favorite Ang Lee film. For that, I go to one of his least-praised, least talked-about, least remembered films, yet it is, for me, a true masterpiece, and that is The Ice Storm, which is celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary. Twenty-five years later, this film is still a staggering achievement of nuance, performance and atmosphere that has yet to be rivaled.
The Ice Storm came out the same year as Paul Thomas Anderson’s legendary Boogie Nights, and the two films share similar DNA, as they are both somewhat cynical and dark glimpses behind the façade of American culture and suburbia in the ‘70s. In fact, Boogie Nights’s critical acclaim may have been part of the reason The Ice Storm didn’t come close to making the same kind of impact, as Boogie Nights came out a month earlier and audiences may have felt they’d already filled their quota of dark 70s dramas for the year.
You can understand how Boogie Nights was made by Paul Thomas Anderson, a kid who grew up in the San Fernando Valley and wrote about the seedy side of his hometown that he knew so well, but how on earth does a man born in Taiwan and raised in China make a film that so perfectly captures the essence of the toxicity of American suburbia and the wasteland of the lost American dream as Ang Lee does in The Ice Storm? Granted, he had help, notably from screenwriter James Schamus (based on a book by Rick Moody) and cinematographer Frederick Elmes, but the overall oeuvre of The Ice Storm comes from Ang Lee’s subtle genius, a true testament to his cinematic and storytelling skills, a film that is perfect in every way, proving that sometimes it’s not about what you know as it is how attuned you are to an artistic vision.
The Ice Storm is a downer. There’s no way around it. Whenever I recommend it to people (as I have to do a lot, because nobody ever seems to have heard of it), I always have to preface it with several caveats, the most significant being: it’s dark, it’s dreary and it really doesn’t have much of a story. Great sell, right? But I push it anyway, as I firmly believe that once you give it a chance, The Ice Storm will grab its hooks into you, like a great book that you can’t put down.
Set in suburban Connecticut in 1973, the film takes place over Thanksgiving weekend and centers on two families who live in the same middle-class neighborhood. Kevin Kline and Joan Allen play Ben and Elena, who have two teenage children, Wendy and Paul, played by Christina Ricci and Tobey Maguire. Wendy is sullen and rebellious, a typical teen who enjoys needling her conservative parents. As for Paul, who is away at boarding school, he is coming home for the holiday, but is far more interested in spending time with friends (and a girl he has a crush on, played by Katie Holmes) than being with the family.
Down the street are Janey and Jim, played by Sigourney Weaver and Jamey Sheridan, and their sons, Mikey, played by Elijah Wood, and Sandy, played by Adam Hann-Byrd, who is the youngest of all four children. Sandy is weird and awkward, desperate for any kind of attention, and Mikey just wants to do his own thing.
Both families paint the picture-perfect portrait of the ideal American suburban family, at least on the surface. The men take the train into the city every day for their buttoned-up jobs, while the wives raise the children and play Suzy Homemaker. The problem is, nobody is happy. Ben and Janey are having an affair, while Elena is desperately bored with her life. Everybody continues to go through the motions, but their universal misery soaks through their pores, manifesting itself in sex and alcohol, their common sense of existential dread permeating everything.
The kids are no better. Teenagers are supposed to be miserable and rebellious, but there is a cynicism and a hopelessness in these characters that undermines any traditional sense of youthful abandon. Although the portrait of teens here is far closer to John Hughes than Euphoria, there is still a sense of misery that feels imprinted on them.
But the true beauty of The Ice Storm is this snapshot in time, a reflection of a country in flux, a country faced with a Watergate scandal that threatens the much-needed calm after the turbulence of the ‘60s. The rotting-from-within theme reflects the state of the country, as a restlessness and sense of anxiety come to define a generation that is unsure of its future.
Anxiety is reflected in these characters, as they do all they can to escape the monotony of their seemingly pre-ordained lives, their moral compasses broken by the loss of innocence. There is a great absence in these lives, the adults suffer an absence of love and connection and the children an absence of any attention at all. Every single character is craving a connection to something, to anything. It is a significant and moving examination of human frailty and desires.
And yet there is a subversive sense of humor that comes through all of it. Lee’s ability to craft a film like this that is as entertaining as it is depressing is true mastery. While not a true comedy in any sense of the word, there is a darkly comic nature to The Ice Storm that not only releases the tension, but is reflective of the absurdity of the reality in these lives, a through-the-looking-glass bizarreness that forces the viewer to laugh at the self-recognition that seeps through.
Lee is only able to layer this film with all this complexity and nuance and humor because of the absolutely magnificent cast he assembles. The cast is by far The Ice Storm’s greatest asset and it’s some of the best work any of them have ever done. Kevin Kline made The Ice Storm the same year he made In & Out, and the two roles could not be further from each other. Kline’s character in The Ice Storm is desperately flailing, insecure and lost, but forced to carry the mantle of patriarch and play the role of husband and father when all he wants to do is run screaming into the night. Kline reaches deep into his toolbox and uses every one of his gifts, including his deftly-attuned comic ones, to create a character who is at times pathetic and desperate, but is still trying to hold together his disintegrating family and play his preordained role.
The performance by Sigourney Weaver is, by far, the most under-appreciated one of her career. Her portrayal of a woman angry and trapped is haunting yet invigorating, as her character seems to be the only one who can see the metaphorical meteor careening towards Earth and relishes dancing in its glow. Despite Weaver’s long and storied career, it is for her performance in The Ice Storm for which she won her only major acting award, the BAFTA for Best Supporting Actress, an honor so well-deserved.
It’s probably no mistake that Lee cast Kline and Weaver in these pivotal roles, as their natural chemistry had been on full view four years earlier in the comedy classic, Dave. The two are currently reunited in the new film The Good House, and it is so delightful to see them on screen together again.
Even though Kline and Weaver grab the spotlight in The Ice Storm, the rest of the cast deliver excellent and career-making performances in their own rights, especially Joan Allen, whose sad and hopefully defiant housewife is a monumental example of texture and restlessness. And let’s not forget Allison Janney, in a small but absolutely perfect pre-West Wing role as the key master. (If you know, you know.)
Everything clicks in this film to make it work, but when I think back on The Ice Storm, I’ll be honest, it’s not the performances that come first to mind, or the story, or the social commentary. There are lots of great films with great stories, great acting and timely commentary. What truly sets The Ice Storm apart and the reason I recommend it so often is one thing that truly sets it apart, the thing that I instantly think of when I think of The Ice Storm: the way it feels. It’s really hard to explain or define, it’s a combination of cinematography, production design, costume design and direction. It’s the overall sense of gloom that lingers in every corner of every shot. So much of The Ice Storm is shot outside, the weather is more than a character, it is the centrifugal force that bonds this movie together. Cinematographer Elmes, who won an Emmy for his work on the TV series The Night Of, clearly knows how to shoot in darkness, in grays and deep blues, and in a landscape covered with ice.
But it’s not just the exteriors that are so effective, it’s also Mark Friedberg’s production design, Bob Shaw’s art direction and Stephanie Carroll’s set decoration that transports us to 1973 suburbia, from the colors of the walls to the thickness of the carpets, things only those who lived through the ‘70s can understand. The ‘70s were a time unlike any other, and no film sets you down right into the heart of all those bad choices, from avocado green refrigerators to bright orange down jackets to all the different shades of brown. If you ever wondered why the ‘80s were so perky and obsessed with neon pinks and pastels, just look back at the ‘70s.
The Ice Storm is not afraid to dwell completely in its place and time, as this film submerges itself in the dreariness of its weather and the hopelessness of its characters. And yet there is, somewhere deep inside, a glimmer of optimism, a sense of that bright, neon future that lies on the horizon. The ending of The Ice Storm is a perfect blending of sorrow and gratitude, a beautiful and heart wrenching close to a two-hour journey through anger, jealousy, anxiety and resignation, and, finally, a distinct coming together and an unspoken understanding of the frailty of life and the importance of seeing one another.
The Ice Storm stands as a poetic ode to a time and a place, to family, to humanity. It’s about growing up, it’s about growing apart and it’s, ultimately, about coming together. And nobody but Ang Lee could have given us such a magnificent gift. If you’ve never seen The Ice Storm, do yourself a favor. Pour yourself a stiff drink, put on a pair of old corduroys, and savor it.
The Ice Storm was released by Fox Searchlight on September 26, 1997. It is currently available to rent on Prime Video, YouTube and most places you rent to stream films.