The chill that permeates The Ice Storm doesn't come just from the weather. During Thanksgiving weekend in 1973, a freezing rain blankets the tony suburb of New Canaan, Conn. But comfort and the basic fuel of human warmth are nowhere to be found.
In this masterful film, director Ang Lee (Eat Drink Man Woman, Sense and Sensibility) has captured a moment in American consciousness, one defined by intense uncertainty and dislocation.
Lee and screenwriter James Schamus (who won the best screenplay award at Cannes for this adaptation of Rick Moody's semiautobiographical 1994 novel) envision 1973 as a point of convergence, when the social agenda of the 1960s counterculture met the political cynicism of Watergate and the fracturing of the 1950s nuclear family.
Add to this mixture the visual junk food of the 1970s -- the crazy patchwork of riotous patterns and textures in clothing and home decor -- and The Ice Storm seems like the perfect subject matter for satire. But Lee doesn't choose to play it that way, creating instead a family drama of profound, quiet power.
Benjamin Hood's (Kevin Kline) attitude toward his middle-class existence -- daily commutes to a New York securities brokerage firm, golf with colleagues, evenings and weekends in his tidy, overstuffed suburban home with his cool, distant wife Elena (Joan Allen) and sullen daughter Wendy (Christina Ricci) -- has slid from mere disillusionment to a numbing torpor.
He has entered into an affair with his neighbor, Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver), whose infidelities express her own restlessness. Living on the cutting edge in a stylish glass house, Janey is emotionally cut off from not only her husband Jim (Jamey Sheridan) -- a forward-thinking entrepreneur who willfully ignores the growing gulf between them -- but her teenage sons.
And it's during this weekend, when their parents' lives increasingly (and uncomfortably) intersect, that Wendy raises the stakes in her relationship with the Carver brothers: space cadet math-whiz Mikey (Elijah Wood), who's blasé and anxious to experiment with sex, and the worshipful Sandy (Adam Hann-Byrd), still struggling to cross the threshold from childhood to adolescence and unnerved by the object of his desire.
The Thanksgiving holiday also brings Paul Hood (Tobey Maguire) home from prep school. As in Moody's novel (where he is the narrator), Paul functions as both an insider and outsider, distant enough to be an observer, but too connected to be impartial.
Lee frames the film with the same scene -- Paul returning from New York on the train after the ice storm -- and his voice-over, consisting of insights he's gleaned from Fantastic Four comic books, expertly sets the tone.
The Ice Storm would be praiseworthy enough for its pitch-perfect, multilayered and nuanced performances, its nonjudgmental but probing look at a society at odds with itself, even for Mychael Danna's beautifully sparse and percussive music. But Ang Lee and collaborators have created a stunning and cohesive work, a perfectly realized world captured not in amber, but under a clear, hard sheet of ice.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at email@example.com.