When it comes to seasonal films, the moment the air starts to take on its frigid texture and breath becomes visible the moment you walk out the door, it’s absolutely imperative to curl up and watch Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm. For years, I’ve been referring to the dysfunctional family drama as “the greatest story Raymond Carver never wrote,” but with a script based on Rick Moody’s 1994 novel of the same title, there was certaily a lot to work with. Diving into domestic life in 1973 Connecticut, the film takes place over Thanksgiving break in a time when, for the Carver and Hood families, on a grand scale culture was teetering on edge, and personally, discontent and sexual confusion lined the walls of their homes.
“The period portrayed in The Ice Storm is innocent and good because people are rebelling against old rules and the old order,” Lee has said. “We’re jaded now, while the people of that era were very fresh and bold about reaching for their limits. What they encounter in the process is human nature, and the ice storm, which gives you a little more respect for nature. It turns out that we’re not that free after all.” Lee’s statement expresses both sides of the complex symbol that informs the images of his film—he is one of those artists for whom, without some positive sense of the past, the future is an empty promise. His cinema therefore recalls that of some of the greatest filmmakers who came before him: Ozu, of course, and Americans like John Ford and Orson Welles, with their laments for lost worlds and dissolving traditions.One thing that gives The Ice Storm its hallucinatory intensity is the fact that the era before 1967 has already been swept away without a trace at the start of the film, which portrays the arrival of the present era. But the film does refer to a much older America: Wendy saying grace by thanking God “for letting us white people kill all the Indians,” a glimpse of the famous “Keep America Beautiful” television commercial, with Iron Eyes Cody weeping over a litterbug committing what was then called “pollution,” and the haunting flute music that begins during the credits, over those ghostly letters.“I liked the irony of suggesting music endemic to Native Americans,” composer Mychael Danna has said, “to remind us that, as the characters walk through the woods to their mod houses, the ground beneath their feet used to belong to civilizations that are long gone. Ang and I wanted to remind people of the power of nature—that nature was there before anyone else, and that nature will be there when we’ve gone.”