This Must Be the Place: Home in Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm

Fox Searchlight Pictures

“Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.”
– James Baldwin


It’s 1973 in New Canaan, Connecticut, and all anyone can talk about is sex and politics. Ben Hood, his wife Elena, and their teenage daughter Wendy, have just picked son Paul up from the train station. He would have been there sooner, but an ice storm rolled into town, and while his family’s lives were spiraling into chaos, his train stalled out on the tracks. It’s been a long night.

Once they’re all in the car, Ben moves to start the ignition so they can all go home. But he can’t bring himself to do it. Maybe because, after all they’ve been through, it doesn’t feel like there’s a home to go back to.

He looks at his wife, then turns to glimpse his children. And then he turns back to the steering wheel, and he starts to cry.

The Ice Storm is set in a time period that forced change on everyone who lived through it. It ends at a precipice, when the change has occurred and the fallout begins.  

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Ang Lee meant for The Ice Storm to be his debut English-language film. But logistics got in the way, and it became his second, a follow up to the elegant Sense and Sensibility. In form and in content, Lee’s adaptation of Rick Moody’s novel could not have been more different from his previous film, nor the ones that came before or after. As a director, he’s made a name for himself by being adept at offering a delicate balance of intimacy and grandeur. He reveals something unknown about places that feel foreign to so many of us—the sweeping mountain ranges of Wyoming in Brokeback Mountain, the lush forests of China in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the endless depths of the ocean in Life of Pi.

The Ice Storm offers the same detailed look at its subject matter. But instead of offering a thrilling bird’s eye view of something unexplored, every frame feels darkly familiar and oppressively close to the chest.

Its timeline mostly spans just three days, over the 1973 Thanksgiving holiday. It’s set mostly in the homes of two families, the Hoods and the Carvers. And it unwinds, not with any direct dramatic forward motion, but with a meandering, dreadful certainty that none of what we’re seeing could possibly end well. It all ends with the titular storm, which acts as both a catalyst and a symbol of the sea change that occurs for each main character.

In an introduction to the published screenplay for The Ice Storm, Lee had this to say about how he approached the film’s central themes:

“When I think of The Ice Storm, I think first of water and rain, of how it falls everywhere, seeps into everything, forms underground rivers, and helps to shape a landscape. And also, when calm, of how it forms a reflective surface, like glass, in which the world reappears. Then, as the temperature drops, what was only water freezes. Its structure can push iron away, it is so strong. Its pattern overthrows everything.”

This is as good a summary as any you might be able to offer when asked about the film. You could use words like “family” and “sex” and “Richard Nixon” and “the 1970s” and, of course, “the storm” to describe what happens. But if you try to say much more about the plot, or the characters, it either feels vague, or you feel as though you’ve spoiled it.

The Ice Storm is one of countless films that explore the breakdown of the family unit. And though it’s a period drama, a film that takes place a decade before I was even born, it’s one I return to, again and again, because its themes feel so timeless (after all, here we are in 2017, and once again all anyone can talk about is sex and politics).

Because it isn’t just a film about these families, or sex, or the ‘70s. It’s about how dreary and mundane life can be, and also how lives can be changed so quickly that they become unrecognizable. While The Ice Storm certainly explores the ins and outs of marital strife, of sibling rivalry, of that fragile and ever-changing bond between parent and child, it never feels like it’s passing judgment on its subjects. Instead, Lee invites us to get to know them by letting us live with them, walk the halls of their homes and lay in their beds.

These houses, like the people who live in them, serve not only as central locations for The Ice Storm’s slowly unfolding drama, but as a symbol of each family’s central dysfunction. And as they make choices that will change them, and mistakes they can’t take back, their homes—the role they play in their lives, the very feeling of them—start to change, too.

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The Hoods’ home, ‘50s style architecture with modern fixtures, feels, in every square foot, like a symbol of its time. It is tastefully bold, with loud prints and bright paintings, floating Formica cabinets and paisley furniture. It’s purposefully cluttered, feels sometimes filled to the brim with knick knacks and photo frames, and relics of the life the have built. Every room feels like it could be cut from a 1970s issue of Good Housekeeping. The Hood home feels warm and inviting—not just a place that’s lived in, but a place you might actually want to live.

The same is true of the family that resides there. They would be perfectly lovely people to live with, if they would simply give each other a chance. There’s Ben (Kevin Kline), a bored middle manager who loves his kids down to his bones and will show them every chance he gets, even though it’s embarrassing, even though it’s sometimes harsh.

There’s Elena (Joan Allen), repressed, not a hair out of place, who aimlessly wanders through the film searching for something to distract her from her disintegrating marriage. There’s Paul (Tobey Maguire), an introverted teen who has to navigate his family’s changing dynamic from the outskirts. And there’s Wendy (Christina Ricci), running full speed along a quickly dissolving barrier between childhood and adulthood.

The Hoods spend most of The Ice Storm actively avoiding any confrontation around their insecurities or indiscretions. They co-exist, they’re cordial and usually kind, and yet they’re each so consumed with their own personal crises that they don’t take the time to hear one other when they try to verbalize what they’re going through.

But there is, at least, a warmth in their unfinished attempts at connecting. Ben corners Paul in the car on the way home from the train station to give him well-intentioned and humiliating advice about masturbating in his school dorm.

He and Wendy have a combative relationship—she calls him a fascist, he scolds her for everything from her fascination with Nixon’s downfall, to the anti-colonial slant she takes while saying Thanksgiving grace, to her own sexual explorations. But there is love between them and, though they may not even realize it, both are driven from their own home and into another, looking for the exact same thing.

Elena, too, tries hard to be a mother, though her affections and actions are equally detached. And she’s too busy trying to keep her marriage together, because neither she nor Ben seem to have the energy for the alternative. But their marriage is nothing more than a perfunctory commitment, something to be tended to quickly between various chores and errands. It’s a part of their home life, but not a part of their lives in any way that is meaningful.

Neither of them wants to live this way. His affair is an open secret, one that fills the empty spaces in their home. But not only does Elena not say anything about it for much of the film, she encourages him not to say anything either, shutting him down every time he tries to start the conversation.

The sad irony—perhaps The Ice Storm’s most potent sadness, really, and there are many—is that the Hoods have all the makings of a great family. They each want the same thing, and want to give the same thing: love, honesty, trust. But they can’t seem to give it to one another in a way that hits where it needs to. So, the Hoods are wanderers, constantly seeking out whatever it is they cannot find at home.

It’s fitting, then, that we spend so little time inside the Hood residence. With all their coming and going as the story progresses, it begins to feel like the family is in the house, but never truly of it. Its lived-in quality, its offer of a warmth that they generate individually but not collectively, sets a kind of expectation that seeps into all their interactions. It shapes the landscape of what they want, and it’s that desire that, in almost every case, leads to their ultimate disappointment.

They are looking for a home they already have. They’re just not able to see it.

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When we get our first real glimpse of the Carver house, it’s from a distance, obscured by branches. It is a feat of architectural modernity: boxy and white, beautiful in its simplicity, filled with sharp edges and wall-to-wall windows. It almost seems to blend into the grey winter day that surrounds it.  

On the inside, it’s affixed with all the signs of affluence that a family of that time might be expected to have—lacquered furniture, shag carpet, a Sputnik chandelier, a waterbed.

Their home feels almost aggressively ahead of its time, and therefore, out of place in all its outward perfection. And its inhabitants live that, breathe that feeling of displacement, like it’s a part of not just the house’s DNA, but their own, too.

Janey (Sigourney Weaver) can put on a show for her guests—the perfect hostess, the perfect modern woman—but only for so long. Her children are yet another thing to manage, so her form of parenting includes harsh warnings about the danger that could befall the children in her care, but never a sense that she would care if something did happen.

Her relationship to herself is every bit as cold as it is to her immediate surroundings. She seeks out the affections of men that aren’t her husband—like Ben, or a friend’s younger paramore —only to keep them at an arm’s length. And, though she is outwardly happy to welcome friends into her home and men in between her legs, the last we see of her, she is curled in the fetal position in the water bed that she hates, chilled to the bone by her own aloneness.

Her husband, Jim (Jamey Sheridan), is mostly a shadow in his own life, so much so that his very presence in his own bedroom feels wrong. Their marriage is nothing of the sort, a cold and casual arrangement that exists solely out of convenience. If they’re interested at all in being anything other than shadows to one another, neither of them would ever admit it.

Their kids, Mikey (Elijah Wood) and Sandy (Adam Hann-Byrd), often seem to lack a basic connection to the family, to each other, and to the home itself. For all his fascination with the natural elements of the world, nothing about Mikey’s life feels organic. He tries to connect with his brother, his classmates, his crush, to tell them about the things that make him tick, but is met, almost always, with blank stares. So he checks out, and lives more in his thoughts than he does in his surroundings.

And Sandy, the youngest, is the one who feels the most and is least equipped to deal with everything he faces. So, he erupts: in fearful shouts when Wendy makes a move on him, in pitiful tears when he’s faced with insurmountable tragedy. These outbursts feel jarring in the otherwise relative silence at the Carvers’. They feel like a rebellion against the oppressive quiet he lives in.

The Carver House is beautiful, but nothing about it is a home. Its windows make it feel like a fish bowl. Its openness absorbs the grey winter from outside, making even the brightest colors feel just a little bit drab. For all its trappings, the house itself seems to repel any warmth or light coming from outside or in.

The Carvers co-exist, but their home, so spacious and often sparse, feels empty and wide. It’s easy for them to maneuver carefully, so that they rarely have to see, or even acknowledge, one another. It is a place where the characters try, and try, and try, to give what they have to give—love, trust, honesty—and where it is absorbed, but rarely reciprocated. Like the people who inhabit it, it’s beautiful, pristine, and untouchable—a reflecting surface, like glass.

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For all the time we spend at home with the Hoods and the Carvers, nearly all the consequences that befall them happen elsewhere. Their homes, while often unpleasant reminders of the parts of their lives that aren’t working, offer some buffer from the consequences of their actions and desires.

As the ice storm rolls in, everyone stops flirting around the fates they’ve laid out for themselves. Paul goes to New York City, tries to make a move on his crush, and fails spectacularly. Wendy and Sandy give in to temptation and have sex. The adults attend a key party where Janey leaves with a man half her age, Ben reacts poorly and publicly, and Jim and Elena, alone together in the mutual sting of their spouses’ infidelity, have what amounts to terrible revenge sex in Jim’s car.

The Hoods and the Carvers spend most of The Ice Storm ignoring their dysfunction. But the fallout from all of this is unavoidable. There’s been a shift in their lives, in how they see each other. And yet the newfound intimacies and indiscretions and disappointments are all overshadowed by the biggest shift of all: Mikey, on a childlike adventure through the ice and snow, is electrocuted, and dies instantly.

It’s Ben, hungover and humiliated, who finds him laying face down in the road on his way home from the party, and who carries him to the Hoods’ home. Wendy is there, having spent the night with Sandy. Elena is there, having come home with Jim following their disastrous tryst. They watch as Ben delivers Mikey into Jim’s stunned embrace.

You get the feeling, as the Hoods and Carvers take in the tragedy, that something has forever changed in this home. Even if it didn’t happen here, it’s been carried through the front door and become a new part of their everyday existence, something they’ll never be rid of. The grief is palpable. It fills the room, leaving little space for the people who will have to occupy it.

We never find out how everything that happened changed the Carvers’ lives, because we don’t ever get to see them go home again. They remain both intrinsically a part of, and ultimately removed from, this horrific event.  

But it would be impossible to assume that this chain of events—the party, the indiscretions laid bare, and finally, Mikey’s untimely end—doesn’t affect them as well. They won’t sit in that car forever, numb, struggling to process everything they’ve gone through. Eventually, after Ben pulls himself together, they will have to go home.

And if we’ve learned anything about them at all, it’s that they will also keep pretending that everything they’re doing is working just fine, even when it most definitely is not. This night will take its toll, will settle into the blue wallpaper and the lime green kitchen cabinets. It will make both homes colder, this newfound sadness. Its pattern will overthrow everything.