Made back in the hey day of home video when everybody started buying DVDs, the Fox version had zero extra features and a transfer that didn’t do justice to Frederick Elmes‘ haunting cinematography and Mark Friedberg‘s pitch-perfect production design. Watching the restored 2K digital film transfer (done in 2008 for the Criterion DVD edition) on Blu-ray brings me back to the feeling I experienced in the theater way back in 1997, when the movie was released.
If you weren’t able to date the movie by the ages of its well-known ensemble cast, you may not have any idea that The Ice Storm wasn’t actually filmed in 1973, the year it is set in. Adapted from the semi-autobiographical book by Rick Moody, which I haven’t read, the film profiles two families at their most desperately lost. Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, Sigourney Weaver, and Jamey Sheridan are all unhappily married, and Lee ties their malaise into the pervasive “lost” feeling that the country had coming out of the Vietnam War, the failed idealistic hippie utopia of the late 60s, and in the midst of the Watergate scandal.
But don’t put the “humorless” label on this film just becuase of its dark tone and subject matter. It’s actually quite funny, in a perverted way. (It was nice to hear Kline say in one of the features that he thought it was a comedy upon first read.)
Add in the reflective family holiday of Thanksgiving, and you have a recipe for acting out and making poor decisions in the name of “finding yourself.” From watching and listening to the supplemental features on the disc (an audio commentary by Lee and producer/screenwriter James Schamus, a 2008 37-minute retrospective documentary on the filming, a 22-minute interview with Moody, a Lee/Schamus conversation at the Museum of the Moving Image, visual essay/interview about the look of the film, and 4 deleted scenes), it’s clear that Lee turned a more sympathetic eye to the characters than Moody did in his novel.
Kline had to walk the thinnest tightrope of all, as his selfish and immature adulterer and bad father could have come across as virtually irredeemable. Instead, he anchors the most poignant moment of the film, a tragic scene that takes place in the aftermath of the storm that covers his upper-class Connecticut town in shimmering, dangerous sheets of ice. This gives the film it’s biggest emotional gut-punch — after 90+ minutes of repressed frustration — and serves as a potent visual metaphor/wake-up call for the character’s emotional states.
It’s also a treat to revisit The Ice Storm to see its very young supporting cast — Tobey Maguire, Elijah Wood, Christina Ricci, and Katie Holmes — all doing subtle and excellent work. Holmes is the only one missing in the making-of doc, and its interesting to note that as much as they learned from the older, more experienced actors on the set, the adults also were inspired by the maturity and naturalness displayed by their younger co-stars.
The other feeling that comes across easily after devouring the extra features is what a masterclass filmmaker Ang Lee and how supremely focused he was about every part of the production.
He sent the actors packets of information about the movie’s historical context (being Taiwanese, he wasn’t in America in 1973, so it was as much a learning process for himself) and requested that each of them fill out a complete backstory for their character leading up to the events of The Ice Storm. Some of the actors even accused the director of using the language barrier as an excuse to offer more blunt advice and comments about their performances!
Now that it has a beautiful Blu-ray release, The Ice Storm may finally start rising in the eyes of film fans and scholars for what it is — one of the best films of the 1990s.
New York Times film critic A.O. Scott has a really great video review of The Ice Storm with high-quality clips from the film below: