Light on plot, heavy on subtext, The Ice Storm follows two New Canaan, Connecticut families during a particularly stormy Thanksgiving weekend in 1973. The more stable of the two (albeit only slightly) are the Hoods. Ben (Kevin Kline) is carrying on an affair behind wife Elena’s (Joan Allen) back. Their children seem relatively well adjusted. Paul (Tobey Maguire) is a happy-go-lucky, part-time stoner attending a fancy prep school. Wendy (Christina Ricci) is younger, has a crush on a pair of brothers, and shares her mom’s predilection for light shoplifting.
The Carvers are another story, dysfunctional in the extreme and nothing but a negative influence on the Hoods. Janey (Sigourney Weaver) is miserable in her marriage and seemingly unaware of her two boys’ distressing mental states. She’s the one with whom Ben is involved, but theirs is a passionless affair. Janey just wants empty sex, while Ben wants someone to talk to about his wife’s problems. Janey’s husband Jim (Jamey Sheridan) is an empty suit, so involved with work and disconnected from his family that he also can’t see how in-need his boys are. Young Sandy (Adam Hann-Byrd) blows up anything he can in the backyard. Slightly older Mikey (Elijah Wood) is lost in a world all his own. He’s a sensitive, scientifically-minded kid, but painfully awkward socially. Both Carver boys lust after Wendy, who all too willingly teases both to the point of distraction.
Between the omnipresent Watergate scandal, “key parties” (where couples randomly swap car keys, each spouse going home with someone else’s), wretched fashions, and tacky décor, the early ‘70s definitely count as a character in the film. As we see these two families lives fall apart, what becomes subtly clear is the poisoning effect one has on the other. There is talk of couple’s therapy and hints that Elena Hood’s past is far darker than what we see. On the surface, the Hoods are fairly typical and on their own nearly boring. Their involvement with the four-alarm fire that is the Carver family infects their otherwise suburban coziness like a virus. Only the genial Paul Hood, a gentlemen who resists taking advantage of his dream girl, Libbets (Katie Holmes), when she’s at her most vulnerable, has avoided toxicity.
The Criterion Collection has recently updated their 2008 DVD edition, offering the film on Blu-ray for the first time. The image is strong, capturing the somewhat dim, grayish gloom of Frederick Elmes’ cinematography. Everything about the film’s visuals is muted, so don’t expect vibrant colors. It’s just not that kind of movie. Nor is it particularly sonically exciting, but the simple DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo track boasts crystalline dialogue. The distinctively prickly score by Mychael Danna is highlighted by the lossless track as well.
Nothing new supplements-wise for anyone who owns Criterion’s previous DVD, but everything from that earlier release is included here. There’s commentary by director Lee and screenwriter Schamus. “Weathering the Storm” tracks the film’s production (it was originally conceived as a comedy before Lee signed on). An interview with source novel author Rick Moody centers on differences between page and screen. There are deleted scenes, short featurettes about the film’s look, and a discussion between Lee and Schamus covering their other collaborations.
The Ice Storm evokes a queasy sense of unease without ever dipping into truly disturbing territory. It’s unifying, tragic event is unspeakably sad, but it feels so inevitable that it doesn’t really jerk tears. The exceptionally fine acting, from Kline’s “upstanding husband and father” routine to Weaver’s embittered ice queen, makes the film even more worthwhile.