Director: Ang Lee
Writer: James Schamus; based onThe Ice Storm by Rick Moody
Cinematographer: Frederick Elmes
Producer: Ted Hope, James Schamus, and Ang Lee
by Jon Cvack
Continued from Part 2...
The Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Ben and Janey meet once again, and just as Ben again starts droning on about work Janey excuses herself, driving off and leaving Ben alone. Wendy and Mikey made amends the day before and go into the basement. Wendy puts on a creepy Richard Nixon mask and makes a move, offering him foreplay to which Mikey obliges in one of the most uncomfortable sex scenes I’ve seen in years. Just as they things underway, Ben heads down and discovers them. He's furious.
Elena realizes Ben’s affair when he recounts the story, and not wanting to immediately destroy their lives instead keeps calm and turns to the local pastor who’s been flirting with her. Sure Elena could leave him, but having not worked what is she going to do? It’s easy to assume she could leave, but given their relatively comfortable lives, it’s clear why she wouldn’t.
It’s a dilemma that sets up the conclusion in a way I failed to grasp as a kid. Although pissed, Elena demands they go to a Thanksgiving party where they discover it’s actually a “key party”; that is, a couples swap. The men throw their car keys into the bowl and the women pick the keys out and whoever’s they grab is who they go home with. Expecting Elena to want to leave, Ben’s surprised when she hopes to stay; later meeting the same priest in town who charmed her, realizing that his values aren’t just progressive but completely absent. He too believes in nothing beyond what brings pleasure.
An ice storm begins to fall, Wendy heads over to Mikey’s who’s left to go play in the storm, ending back up at the pool where he slides across the diving board, his feet slipping across the ice before he reaches the end and starts to jump while preserving his balance. The stunt is strikingly real - cheated at first by showing feet walk on an icey diving board then possibly cheated by framing out the safety pads below but it is very much Elijah Wood trying to maintain his balance, creating great tension as we imagine falling over a dozen feet into ice covered pool tile. But he survives.
Wendy meets Sandy’s brother at the house and invites herself in, finding him alone. The two end up in the guest room where they find Ben and Janey’s bottle of gin. Wendy demands they take a few swigs and immediately I was taken back to high school where alcohol combined with potential partners caused a buzz rarely experienced in adulthood - the thrill of getting caught combined with the lust for another combined with the effects of alcohol. Sandy follows, his face growing flush and Wendy asks that they take off their clothes. Sandy follows and Wendy attempts to make a move but the three or four shots cause Sandy to spin out and fall asleep with Wendy following shortly after.
Back at the house, Ben experiences his own cocktail of desire for Janey, awkwardness with Elena, and battling an entire fifth of vodka on the rocks. Even after encountering the priest, Elena wishes to stay and the key party begins. One by one the couples go off and soon Janey is grabbed by one of the younger bachelors and Ben hops off the couch and falls to the floor, drunk. It’s an act of pure cinema - words delay the immediacy of action. It is without thought he jumped toward her in jealousy and as fast it happens we cringe and watch as the characters piece it all together. Added is Elena’s embarrassment who then ends up with Janey’s husband Jim and the two head outside where Jim makes an aggressive move toward her, then stopping, also embarrassed by the situation. Instead they drive off, soon skidding off the road near their houses and they walk back to Jim’s.
Elena comes home to find Wendy in bed with Sandy, waking her up with that frightening parental disappointment. Meanwhile, Mikey continues his adventure, sliding down the frozen street that claimed Jim’s car, soon discovering a loose power line, watching as the sparks pop like fireworks and he scoots back against the steel guardrails and a line falls and electrocutes him dead. Ben wakes up hugging the toilet in the bathroom and tries his best to head home before discovering the body. He returns the body to Jim and Janey’s and takes off with Wendy and Elena to go pick up Paul from the train station.
It cuts to the film’s opening image of Paul getting out of the train car, looking upon his family. In the first minutes, it looks like the perfect family; a married couple and their daughter picking up their son from school. Instead we now know what was beneath the surface, serving as the polar opposite of what we imagine.
It’s what draws things back to the impeachment. The film suggests the president should serve as a paragon of virtue, and when their morality breaks down it impacts the nation. Finishing this up on Day 4 of the Impeachment Inquiry, as Gordon Sonland admits that Trump, Giuliani, Pompeo, Pence, Perry, and Bolton all knew about the quid pro quo with Ukraine, and that Republicans are doing everything in their power to downplay or ignore the accusations. It’s a strikingly comparable situation to Watergate. Right now it feels that we’ve never been more divided as a country. The parties believe two completely different realities. One side professes a great distrust in a problematic government and yet ignores the over 10,000 lies Trump has told in office. About sleeping with a porn star, about talking to Russia, about his financial position, about how he got his start in business, about his deferment to Vietnam all while disparaging handicap people, immigrants, women, POWs, and freedom of the press. He has loyalty to no one, willing to throw anyone under the bus who stands in his way. We should all despise the man and yet his base idolizes him. in the worst case, white supremacists see him as one of their own, in a more mild case, people feel empowered to view the press and Democrats as their enemies, no longer just opponents. It breaks down the values; he gave people's raw anger a voice and encouraged them to use it, no matter the hypocrisy.
It’s this division that stands to make morals break. I’m not scared of Trump. I don’t think he’s smart enough to use the system to dismantle democracy (or cares), but what we’re seeing is how fragile our institutions are, and how someone more savvy could exploit its weaknesses. The Ice Storm is about the effects of these ethical breaks. To cheat on one’s wife, for kids to view sex frivolously, to drug and consider raping a crush - while I once saw the movie as about another cast of alienated upper class people, it seems more about a break of moral fabric. To think that it’s only upon death that the two families reunite, no matter the magnanimity, goes to show the lengths possibly required to snap people out of it. If they ever could be. Writing this about eighteen months before the Jan 6 Insurrection, I'm left wondering the same. Things are quiet with Biden, but Trumpism seems far from gone.
BELOW: Key party
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