The ice storm
It is 1973. New Canaan, Connecticut is a prototypical “bedroom” community. Modern homes, clean, quiet streets and plenty of greenspace lend an air of contentment to the setting. However, behind the doors of these homes discontent and ennui are thriving.
“…affluent Americans increasingly clustered in suburban areas, where jobs for women were limited and domestic help was in short supply. Husbands were away from home longer because they had to commute to work, leaving the wives to bear the complete responsibility for the family…The American dream of affluence in a natural, bucolic setting away from urban squalor often made it impossible for women to be anything other than housewives and mothers.” i.
The Ice Storm focuses on two families, the Hoods and the Carvers. Ben Hood, (Kevin Kline), is the aptly-named, self-absorbed patriarch of his family moving through life believing all that matters is what he sees in front of him; his wife, Elena (Joan Allen) is his quietly despairing mate and mother of Paul (Tobey Maguire) and Wendy (Christina Ricci). Jim Carver (Jamey Sheridan) is an enterprising man, who is seldom home long enough to attend to the needs of his wife Jane (Sigourney Weaver) and their two sons Mike (Elijah Wood) and Sandy (Adam Hann-Byrd). These families are linked by relationships, superficially neighborly, but in fact more visceral than they are prepared to admit to even themselves. It takes an outside force, the ice storm, to force them to come to grips with the realities of their lives, both individually and as families.
“The majority of the past and present studies of martial discontent decisively show that non-working married women are much more prone to anxiety, depression, and mental breakdowns than married men, married working women, or single women.” ii.
Elena Hood and Jane Carver are stereotypical suburban wives. Jane is portrayed as a sexual person, her first three appearances show her cleaning spilt wine from Ben Hood’s crotch, the next two in bed. She dresses provocatively, in fur, boots, and bangles, her long hair flowing about her shoulders. Elena is shown as a domestic, spending most of the film in the kitchen. Though she is a beautiful, vivacious woman, she locks her emotions away beneath her suburban spousal exterior. She is the prototypical housewife. Both women have husbands who are absent. Jim Carver travels the country, living in a world of packing peanuts and semiconductors. He is excited by his pursuits, an exhilaration his family does not share. Ben Hood is a commuter, but even when home in New Canaan, he is wrapped up in cocktails, the arms of Jane, and himself. Elena and Jane are above all else, bored. Each of them deals with her boredom in her own way. Jane fills the void by sleeping with Ben Hood, while Elena emulates her daughter by mounting a bicycle and riding down to the local pharmacy to shoplift. In New Canaan, there are few distractions for those who spend all their time in the town. While the men travel to the city to work, their wives and children are left searching for ways to occupy the idle hours. Sandy Carver spends his time blowing things up, while his brother ponders nature and the body of sexually curious Wendy Hood in a neighbor’s empty swimming pool. Surrounding them all is the sour stench of a disgraced President Nixon on his last political legs and a nation withdrawing from an unpopular war in Vietnam. As they wont for nothing material, their detachment from the daily struggles of life fuels their growing separation from each other and themselves. They are forever going to “talk about it in the morning”, but morning arrives with husbands on the train and children off to school. With alcohol and sedatives never in short supply, evenings are spent discussing all but what is truly important.
Elena knows that her husband is having an affair with Jane Carver, but even at the point of confronting him, she internalizes her dismay. She tells Ben, “It wouldn’t make for a pleasant evening, if that’s what you’re after”,as they depart for yet another cocktail party. As it is, they are unaware of what lay in wait for them this particularly evening. Tonight’s party will not be the usual fare. The Halfords are having a “key party”. A uniquely Californian invention, husbands place their keys in a bowl upon entering the house, and, after liberal doses of alcohol, each wife goes to the bowl and select a set of keys from it, at which point she is to leave with the owner of the keys. Ben and Elena initially balk at this, but, after a short, mostly wordless discussion in the car, decide to participate. Many cocktails numb the uneasiness those in attendance feel as the moment approaches. Meanwhile, outside the house rages an ice storm, called the “worst in a century”. Paul Hood, home from boarding school, travels to New York City to woo his high school crush, Libbets Casey (Katie Holmes) his amorous intent thwarted by his dilettante roommate and the obligatory chemical overindulgence. Wendy goes to the Carvers’ house, ostensibly to see Mike; however she ends up drinking vodka in bed with Sandy. Mike is out enjoying the “clean” air of the ice storm and marveling at its beauty. Mike is a dreamer, a boy who seems “out of it”, but is more in touch with his surroundings than those around him. He strives beyond the banal reality of life in New Canaan, seeking that which others miss. He finds perfection in nature, but it is this belief which ultimately ends his life.
Wendy is 14 years old, and well-aware of her sexuality. She is also disgusted by the Watergate hearings, and Nixon’s behavior during them. She is at once a little girl and jaded world observer. She draws Sandy into the bathroom for “I’ll-show-you-mine-if-you-show-me-yours”, but speaks eloquently of Nixon’s lies. She shares an adolescent affair with Mike, but knows of Sandy’ infatuation with her. Her behavior is reflective of that of her parents, in that she longs to talk about things, but hasn’t the ability to articulate her feelings, except where Nixon is concerned. Communication through physical means is the only avenue available to her.
The storm, now at full force, mimics the events transpiring in the Halfords’ house. Emotions which flow freely when mixed with alcohol will become frozen moments in time as the keys are removed from the bowl. One by one, drop by drop, lives will be forever changed; some little, some greatly. This reality is lost on the giggling, besotted attendees for the most part. However, inevitably, Ben reacts when Jane chooses someone else’s keys from the bowl. While her husband looks on in quiet despair, her lover drunkenly leaps from the couch, only to fall in a heap onto the floor. He is then taken to the bathroom to ponder his actions. The last keys in the bowl are Jim’s, and the last woman to select is Elena. They are both disgusted by the entire affair and Jim offers to drive Elena home. As they wait for the car windows to defrost, they share a quick, unceremonious tryst in the front seat of Jim’s Cadillac. Jim apologizes saying it was “awful, just awful…I’m sorry”, and Elena returns to the house to tell Ben she’s leaving. She and Jim depart, only to run off the road, and end up walking back to the Carvers’ house.
Jane has already returned home, and has curled up, in the fetal position in her bed, assuming Jim is with another woman. In some way, she may feel that by forcing Jim to go off with someone else, she can assuage her guilt about her own transgressions. Mike is still out frolicking in the storm, and stops to rest briefly on a guardrail to gaze at a broken light pole. As he watches it collapse under the weight of the ice, its power line detaches, and he utters “oh, no” as he is electrocuted. New Canaan and Paul’s returning train from New York are plunged in darkness. Elena goes downstairs at the Carvers’, and she and her daughter stare at each other, wordless, as Wendy and Sandy lay in bed together, naked. Ben recovers his faculties enough to drive himself home, and on his way there discovers the lifeless body of Mike. He picks him up and takes him back to the Carvers’. There, Jim and Sandy cry over their dead son and brother, as Jane awakens. The Hoods then leave to pickup Paul at the station. The film ends with silent glances amongst the Hoods, until Ben breaks down in tears on the steering wheel of his car.
This film, based on a novel by Rick Moody, is the story of affluence gone haywire. The prevailing male view, that women, by right, be the caregivers, child-rearers, and pleasure drones for them and their heirs was no longer adequate in 1973. Families, living in the suburbs, were fundamentally fatherless, as the men went off in trains and planes to earn money, only to come home and ask “How’s it goin’?” on their way to the liquor cabinet. This was the year Jong’s Fear of Flying and Plath’s The Bell Jar were published. The mentality that had produced Father Knows Best was obsolete. The kids knew it, the wives knew it, but didn’t know how to express it. America was at a crossroads. Vietnam had shown the country that the “US of A” was not quite as great a power as many had believed. Nixon showed that maybe the fish does rot from the head down. Many lessons were learned in 1973, and some, like Mike Carver and the soldiers in Vietnam, lost their lives learning them. During the Depression and World War II, “women’s work” became much more than tasks performed at home. The “go where you want to go, do what you want to do” mantra of the ‘60s showed women who felt there was more to life than domesticity that their urge to be “of the world” was a viable goal. They wanted, rightly, to be included in the power structure. The obstacle to this end was the existing male-dominated power elite. Men, who through upbringing and experience believed that their position of control was pre-ordained, were too busy convincing themselves and each other of their rectitude to listen to what women wanted. Wendy Carver is a product of all this, a girl blossoming into womanhood, and a person with strong opinions to express. She, in many ways, defines the burgeoning power women felt in their grasp in 1973. They yearned to be part of the great decision-making processes affecting their world. Their perspective, they knew, was vital to making the necessary changes to the “boys’ club” mentality that had bred the wars, embargos and political chicanery that plagued America in the early 70s. The world was changing, and it was time to talk about it.