Wednesday, August 14, 2019

The Fairy Tale Project | The Ice Storm (1997)

Who's in it?: Kevin Kline (Silverado, A Fish Called Wanda, Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame), Joan Allen (the Bourne movies), Sigourney Weaver (Alien, Ghostbusters, Working Girl, Snow White: A Tale of Terror, Galaxy Quest, The Village), Christina Ricci (The Addams Family, Casper, Gold Diggers: The Secret of Bear Mountain, Little Red Riding Hood, Sleepy Hollow, Speed Racer), Elijah Wood (The Lord of the Rings), Tobey Maguire (The Cider House Rules, Spider-Man, Seabiscuit, Satan’s Alley), David Krumholtz (Addams Family Values, 10 Things I Hate About You), Katie Holmes (Batman Begins), Henry Czerny (Clear and Present Danger, Mission: Impossible), and Allison Janney (Miracle on 34th Street, 10 Things I Hate About You, Spy)

What's it about?: Two families in the 1970s struggle with the effects of the sexual revolution over the course of a Thanksgiving weekend.

How is it?: This popped onto my radar because of the fairy tale project I'm working on and a connection the film has to the story of "Little Red Riding Hood." It's not a fun or easy movie to watch, but it's good and thought-provoking. I like it, but it's not something I'll rewatch often.

By coincidence, I watched it closely after seeing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for the first time. That was a cool juxtaposition of themes. Cuckoo’s Nest is a '70s film that documents society's questioning the rules and boundaries of the '50s and early '60s. Jack Nicholson plays a convict who's placed in a psychiatric ward for observation to see if he's actually mentally ill or just acting out. While he's there, he clashes with the head nurse on the ward, a no-nonsense, authoritarian woman who holds tight control over her patients and resents the element of chaos that Nicholson brings to her life. She represents the establishment, Nicholson represents American culture's push back against it, and the film presents both the uplifting and heart-breaking consequences of that conflict.

The Ice Storm, on the other hand, is a '90s film that looks back at the '70s and questions the wisdom of jettisoning all those rules and boundaries without replacing them with something else. The film is primarily interested in attitudes around sex, so the two families at the center of the story all struggle with that in various ways. Some of the adults are questioning the value of fidelity in marriage just as their teenage children are beginning to experiment with each other's bodies. But rather than feeling liberated by their new sexual freedom, the various characters are as trapped and unhappy as anyone in a '50s suburban melodrama.

The film gave me a lot to think about and it's presented extremely well with great acting and Ang Lee's typically excellent direction. I especially love the metaphors. For starters there's the symbolism of the ice storm itself that moves in over the weekend and makes everyone's life more dangerous. It suggests that navigating sex without rules is like walking or driving on ice. It feels exhilarating, but it's also an easy way to get hurt.

But more appropriate to my fairy tale project is that one of the families is named Hood and a couple of the teenage characters (Christina Ricci and Elijah Wood) wear red hoods throughout the film. Of course that calls Little Red Riding Hood to mind with the implication being that '70s America has naively wandered off the path and found itself in deep trouble.

One of my favorite relationships in the film is between Ricci's character Wendy and her dad, Ben, played by Kevin Kline. Ben is having an affair with their next door neighbor (Sigourney Weaver), but is very upset about catching Wendy fooling around with the neighbor's son (Elijah Wood). This strains their relationship and Ben has a hard time figuring out the appropriate way to feel about it. Wendy seems very grown-up and rational and Ben is the emotional one, so how can he parent her under those conditions? Especially when he has no moral high ground to stand on? So late in the movie after a big argument, they're walking home and Wendy intentionally steps in a big puddle just to show that she doesn't care and can do whatever she wants. They argue a bit more and the conversation goes nowhere until Ben asks her if she's cold and wants him to carry her. It's my favorite part of the movie when she agrees and climbs into his arms.

I don't love it because the parent has triumphed over the child. Ben doesn't even think of it as a victory. It's just a sweet, quiet moment where they both pull back from the freedom they've been so eager to explore and allow themselves the comfort of a structured relationship. That can't last forever and they both know it, but it's beautiful in the moment. 

Rating: Three out of five modern Red Riding Hoods

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