Film: So cold and bleak you could cheer

The Big Picture: The Ice Storm

Ryan Gilbey
Friday 06 February 1998 00:02

The Ice Storm

A person can grow weary of seeing children in the movies depicted as wise and irreproachable, so earns a special merit badge straight off the bat for demonstrating that when kids are screwy or wigged- out, it doesn't have to be cute - it can just be creepy.

Teenager narrators are usually portrayed as adolescent prophets but on this score, too, the picture displays admirable temperance. The voiceover delivered by Paul (Tobey Maguire) trades in abstract reflections peppered with poppycock. Paul isn't especially intuitive, but he knows there's something ugly and insidious his family - his ineffectual father, Ben (Kevin Kline), and his mother Elena (Joan Allen), who is clipped and brittle, and barely able to continue feigning ignorance about Ben's ongoing affair with their neighbour Janey (Sigourney Weaver). Its November 1973 in the leafy Connecticut suburb of New Canaan, and when 16-year-old Paul and his slightly younger sister Wendy (Christina Ricci) watch Nixon buckling under the pressure of Watergate on TV, they experience a self-righteous glee. Later, when Wendy has a moment of intimacy with her boyfriend, she pulls on a rubber mask of the President, so that the offer of hand relief seems to becoming direct from Tricky Dicky. The scene goes from absurd to unsettling so quickly that it's hard to pinpoint the moment you stop laughing and start shuddering.

Ang Lee's film of Rick Moody's novel has a general aura of detached, muffled horror. It's as though the characters are trapped beneath the misty surface of a frozen lake. You feel their torment but you can't reach them. They're drowning in slow motion.

The movie is like a beginner's guide to dysfunctional families. The adults don't know how to communicate, but Paul and Wendy are bonded by their jokey affectations of cynicism. They refer to their mother and father as "the parental units". Its just goofy androidspeak, though they're on to something - Ben and Elena might have arrived in New Canaan via Stepford.

But they're like the Brady Bunch compared with Janey and her clan. Janey is fearsome - as frosty and soulless as her square science-fiction house. She doesn't bother to disguise her contempt for her husband Jim (Jamey Sheridan), and neither does their eldest boy Mikey (Elijah Wood).

Ang Lee has encouraged his cast to pare their craft to the bone, and what you're left with is a stark, frugal acting style that is essentially European. The actors aren't the primary source of information - the composer Mychael Danna uses plaintive flutes and Indonesian brass and wood instruments for a haunting score that imagines the music that would be playing in the characters' souls rather then in their heads.

Its also rare for a film this dependent on symbolism to engage the emotions so completely, and though it's early days yet to be invoking comparisons between Ang Lee and Tarkovsky or Bergman, you sense he's really tuned into their frequency. One of the first shots in is of a train, apparently frozen to the tracks, suddenly creaking into life, the lights in its windows flickering inside its dead shell. Metaphors don't come much more trenchant or ghostly then that.

Any picture made since 1987 which investigates the decaying heart of suburban America must naturally tip its hat to David Lynch's Blue Velvet. goes a step further - it is shot by Frederick Elmes, whose lush, seamy photography gave Lynch's film its fruity textures. The two films share a heightened relationship between characters and design: has a colour scheme of muted mints and lemons; skin has a bluish rigor mortis tint; at times the film looks so washed out that it might be in monochrome.

Blue Velvet presented a town whose repugnancy was concealed, but in that repugnancy is externalised: it is manifested in nature itself, in the central metaphor of the storm that turns Connecticut crunchy. The screenwriter James Schamus seems inexorably drawn towards these stories of family breakdown - he executive-produced Safe, and the recent The Myth of Fingerprints, both of which have obvious stylistic similarities to . The picture builds towards a climax, but stubbornly refuses to accommodate any sense of resolution. No one undergoes a miraculous transformation, no one learns a valuable life lesson upon which they reflect years later from the comfort of an Ivy League dormitory. A film this bleak can really make you cheer.

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