In-depth analysis of the bourgeois American family has been an established subgenre of Hollywood filmmaking ever since social issues and tensions became a vital part of film in that recklessly innovative time known as the Sixties, and, thinking about James Dean kicking and screaming in 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause, one could argue that such a thematic started even before marital issues and teen angst were brought to our attention by the sexual and social revolution of 1968.
Over four decades of dysfunctional characters have lifted the thin veil of hypocrisy that lay on the celebrated symbol of the American Dream like dust on an old family picture, and entire generations of directors have been able to portray the truth behind the façade. And yet, strange as it may seem, all those years of endlessly “looking closer” (Sam Mendes be with us) have somehow lessened the efforts of directors and screenwriters to find some kind of universal meaning in the whole issue – what are the cultural motivations behind a family that falls to pieces, how that kind of human behavior can be read in a bigger picture that includes a rational, unemotional analysis of the social and political events of the last century – in short, how to make a film about a dysfunctional family without sinking into too much melodrama, and to understand how it really works, what makes the wheels spin.
The answer, obviously, couldn’t come from an American filmmaker, too busy creating complex family interactions and spitting out his or her own cultural frustrations to actually stand back and watch. So it took Ang Lee from Taiwan to teach us how to really look. Not necessarily look closer, because that means losing an essential acritical perspective; just look, observe from afar and see how it goes. In short, less Mary Tyler Moore cast against type and gently flying paper bags, and more raw edges.
Because The Ice Storm is not only the storm that freezes over Connecticut one cold 1973 night, it’s something much more dangerous and fascinating to watch. It’s the crystallization of a situation, of conflicts, and of an era that inevitably changed all the cards on the table, and all the players as well. It is not much different from the trees and flowers that we see in the film, perfect and pure and still, ready to be studied as a crystal-clear product of nature. And we look, as through a magnifying glass, at all those frozen details that should have warned the world that something was being altered for good. Somehow, we truly see them for the first time, as all the pieces of this complex, icy puzzle fit together.
Without one hint of an overly emotional approach, Lee’s camera and Schamus’ writing avoid any superficial development of the characters, who are left bare sketches of real people. Instead they try to dissect the reality we can see from the outside, through a particular use of stillness and cold clarity that arise from both the minimalist and sometimes caustic dialogue and from a few key scenes. Scenes that, image-wise, have the perceptible pureness of a snowy day (the long bicycle rides, the Thanksgiving dinners, the rainy nights of confessions, the games in the glassy ice).
In the cyclic structure of the movie, each character, though not explored through his or her personal motivations or backstory, is perfectly formed as an empty vessel that can be filled with the insecurities and fears of a changing era. Each character is defined through a lack of connection to those changes, being either too old or too young to have fully lived the focal point of rebellion – the great divides of 1968 and of the ongoing Vietnam war, maybe an even greater source of change for the U.S. than the youth revolts that burned down Europe. And each character lives through those changes in different ways, always in a self-destructive manner, but never truly grasping the meaning of the changes themselves. Sexual liberation is seen either as a way to avoid boredom and the void of a shallow life (Sigourney Weaver), or as some sort of obligation (Christina Ricci). Some characters try to show the world their acceptance of the new lifestyle, while still truly uncomfortable with everything that implies (Kevin Kline); others are afraid to admit that they’re ready to break through into the new, fast-spinning world (Joan Allen); still others find a safety net in intellectual and/or political awareness (Tobey Maguire, Elijah Wood, Ricci again) which still prevents them from actually feeling alive.
While everybody is frozen in this state of uncertainty – and although we now see with newfound clarity the connection between dysfunction and the unavoidable evolution of human interactions, finally free from any emotive implications – the film leaves one shady and undefined spot in which all these characters, for a fleeting moment (interrupted by the sudden cut to black of the ending) find themselves again as human beings. We have crystallized them, analyzed them, used them as guinea pigs, but in the moment of profound grief humanity is found again, and the cycle of the film (and of life itself) is completed. These examples of dysfunctionality come together to that place of human association called family. And yet not family in the way we think and in the way the film wanted us to believe. We have seen the same family in the same situation at the beginning and at the end of the film, but now we know what to look for as they are waiting in that train station. We still don’t know exactly who they are, but we know where the connection lies, between them as human beings and our common past. This is a family that has been on the brink of extinction, that couldn’t run as fast as the world was running, that was and still is risking destruction. But in that act of genuine human communion, two men separated by such intricate social barriers who lift, together, the body of an innocent, and in that last liberating breakdown of a father crying for a lost child who was not even his own, there may be an ultimate truth: we don’t necessarily need to look closer to discover what is ugly in the world, it is often so obvious, but neither do we need to look closer to see what connects us as human beings.