The Ice Storm is a 1997 drama film directed by Ang Lee, based on the 1994 novel of the same name by Rick Moody. The film features an ensemble cast of Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, Tobey Maguire, Christina Ricci, Elijah Wood, and Sigourney Weaver. Set during Thanksgiving 1973, The Ice Storm is about two dysfunctional suburban Connecticut families who are trying to deal with tumultuous political and social changes of the early 1970s, and their escapism through alcohol, adultery, and sexual experimentation. The title alludes to an actual weather event: a destructive ice storm that blanketed Connecticut and cut electricity to hundreds of thousands of homes for up to a week. Apparently, artistic license was employed because the actual storm hit December 16-17, 1973, not Thanksgiving. The storm was dubbed "Felix" by local weathermen.
Upon the film's opening in the United States on September 27, 1997, its release was limited and it grossed $7.8 million on a budget of $18 million, making it a box office disappointment. It has subsequently become a celebrated success due to a subsequent video release in 1998 and to DVD in 2000. A new special two-disc DVD set was released as a part of the Criterion Collection on March 18, 2008.
Both families are depicted as uncommunicative, with the parents having difficulty talking to their own children and to each other. Ben, dissatisfied in his marriage and with the futility of his career, is having an affair with Janey. Elena is bored with her life and is looking to expand her thinking, but is unsure of how to do so. Wendy enjoys sexual games with her school peers. Paul, an occasional drug user, is trying to bed his schoolmate Libbets Casey (Katie Holmes). The Carvers' two sons are lonely and confused, Mikey playing along with Wendy's sexual games while Sandy is obsessed with violence.
Jim Carver travels for his job and is not involved in his kids' lives. In one scene, he returns from a trip to find that his sons hadn't even realized he'd been gone. Janey, who appears to be carrying on with a number of other men in addition to Ben, finds Jim to be largely an annoyance, and would prefer he remain gone all the time. Elena, who is becoming tired and bored with her life, buys spiritual and self-help books and becomes friendly with the hippy-ish minister of a local church. She attempts to shoplift, as does Wendy – both are eventually caught in the act.
During their trysts, Ben obsesses to Janey over his displeasure with his job and his frustrations at continually being bested by his colleague, smarmy George Clair (Henry Czerny). Janey, however, seems to have become bored with the arrangement, for she has now become unfaithful, not only to her husband, but now to Ben as well. She abruptly leaves the room just prior to a planned sexual encounter with Ben, excusing herself to get "birth control pills" but instead flees the house, leaving Ben alone.
Realizing that she is not returning, Ben prepares to leave, but comes upon his daughter Wendy in the Carvers' basement, initiating a sex act with Mikey (the previous day, she had revealed her genitals to Mikey's younger brother Sandy). Ben then has an awkward discussion with Wendy about "the birds and the bees" as he takes her home, though Wendy (who presumably has already obtained this information from other sources) is visibly bored with his discussions. As the evening begins, a storm hits New Canaan, which evolves into a dangerous ice storm. This both serves as a metaphor for the frozen emotions of many of the characters, and also propels much of the remainder of the story.
When Ben reveals to Elena that he found Wendy in the Carvers' basement, she is more concerned with what he was doing there, eventually concluding that he must be having an affair with Janey. They have a brief argument over it, prior to attending a neighborhood party, which turns out to be a swinger's key party, in which all the husbands toss their keys into a bowl. The women, at the end of the evening each pick a set of keys, going home with whomever's keys they've chosen. Elena at first suspects that Ben was aware of the nature of the party, and had plotted to mark his keys so Janey can easily fish them out. However, in her resentment, she decides to participate in the key party.
At the same time as this is occurring, Paul has taken the train into Manhattan. Paul is excited that Libbets Casey invited him to visit her that evening. He tries to keep this a secret from his roommate, Francis (of whom he is not particularly fond), since Francis has the habit of bedding every girl he discovers Paul is attracted to. Paul is disheartened to discover Francis was also invited. The three listen to music and begin drinking and smoking marijuana. It becomes clear that Libbets is more responsive to Francis's direct advances than Paul's. Paul attempts to drug Francis with Libbets's mother sleeping medication so that he will be out of commission for the evening, but Libbets also takes one of the pills. Francis, however, passes out first. Libbets and Paul put him on the couch, and Paul tries to make his move on Libbets. He is visibly disappointed when she tells him that she thinks of him "like a brother" before she passes out.
Wendy decides to make her way to the Carvers' to see Mikey, but he has decided to go out into the ice storm, so she and Sandy remove their clothes and climb into bed together. She and Sandy drink a bottle of vodka, and Wendy tries to seduce him, however they both fall asleep.
Meanwhile, as the key party progresses, Ben gets drunk. When Janey chooses the keys of another man, Ben attempts to protest, but trips and knocks his head on the coffee table. (It is at this point that Jim realizes that his wife and Ben are having an affair.) Ben, in his embarrassment, retreats to the bathroom, where he remains for the rest of the evening. The remaining key party participants are paired off and leave together, with only Jim and Elena remaining. She retrieves Jim's keys from the bowl and returns them to him. After debating the issue, Jim and Elena leave together, engaging in a quick, clumsy sexual encounter in the front seat of Jim's car. Jim, regretting the line he and Elena have just crossed, agrees to drive her home.
Meanwhile, Mikey, out walking in the storm, is enchanted by the beauty of the trees and fields covered in ice. He sits on a guardrail to rest, but a moment later a power line, broken by a fallen tree, connects with the guardrail, and he is electrocuted.
Jim and Elena end up back at the Carvers' house, as dawn is breaking. Elena walks in on her daughter in bed with Sandy, and orders her to get dressed.
Janey has also returned home. She slips in unseen by her husband and friend and curls up on her bed in the fetal position without bothering to take off her party clothes. Although it is not revealed what transpired between Janey and her 'key partner', she is visibly exhausted and sad.
Ben has sobered up by this time, and begins driving home, but discovers Mikey's body on the side of the road. He brings Mikey's body back to the Carvers' house. The two families are drawn together by Mikey's death, and Wendy attempts to comfort Sandy, who appears numb. Jim is devastated while Janey remains asleep and unknowing in her bed. Ben, Elena and Wendy then drive to the train station to pick up Paul, who is returning from Libbets's apartment. Once all four of them are together in the car, Ben breaks down, sobbing uncontrollably at the wheel.
Schamus brought the book to Ang Lee, who was the first and only contender for the book, and with whom Schamus and partner Ted Hope had already made four films. Despite the obvious appeal of Moody's comedy of familial errors for the creator of The Wedding Banquet (1993), Lee says what attracted him to the book was its climax: the scene where Ben Hood makes a shocking discovery in the ice, followed by the emotional reunion of the Hood family on the morning after the storm. "The book moved me at those two points," says Lee. "I knew there was a movie there."
Director Ang Lee was one of the first directors to get his hands on the script, after becoming a fan of Rick Moody's 1994 bestselling novel. To prepare for the film, Ang Lee let the cast members study stacks of magazine cutouts from the early 1970s. Moody was reportedly very pleased with the final version - and reportedly "sobbed" during the end credits. He also expressed his happiness that the success of the film brought more attention to his novel, leading to more book sales.
One noteworthy difference is that the Carver family was named Williams in the Moody's book.
One of the noticeable features of The Ice Storm is its soundtrack. Most of the professional music featured in the film was independently produced 1970s-type music, as budget values were tight, requiring the most of it to be independent music. Lee and James Schamus wanted to have an "actual score"—not a "nostalgic film with radio music of an earlier time". The soundtrack was first released in the United States on October 21, 1997.
Maureen McGovern's 1973 hit single The Morning After also appears in the film as a briefly heard piece of music performed by Wendy's school orchestra.