The film features an ensemble cast of Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, Tobey Maguire, Christina Ricci, Elijah Wood, Katie Holmes, Glenn Fitzgerald, Jamey Sheridan, and Sigourney Weaver. Set during Thanksgiving 1973, The Ice Storm is about two dysfunctional New Canaan, Connecticut upper-class families who are trying to deal with tumultuous social changes of the early 1970s, and their escapism through alcohol, adultery, and sexual experimentation.
The film opened in the United States on September 26, 1997. Its release was limited and it ultimately grossed US$8 million on a budget of US$18 million. A special two-disc DVD set was released as part of the Criterion Collection on March 18, 2008.
Set over Thanksgiving weekend, 1973, the film centers around two families: the Hoods (Ben and Elena and their children, 16-year-old Paul and 14-year-old Wendy) and their neighbors, the Carvers (Jim and Janey, and their children, Mikey and Sandy).
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, as well as both Carver boys. Paul has fallen for a classmate, Libbets, at the boarding school he attends, though his roommate Francis is also interested in her.
On the Friday night after Thanksgiving, Ben and Elena have an argument when she learns of his affair with Janey, but they go ahead with their plans to attend a neighborhood party, which turns out to be a "key party", where married couples swap sexual partners by having wives select other husbands' keys from a bowl; Jim and Janey are also there. As the party progresses, Ben becomes drunk. When Janey chooses the keys of a handsome young man, Ben attempts to protest but trips and knocks his head on the coffee table, leading Jim to realize 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, offers to drive her home.
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 climb into bed together and remove their clothes. They drink from a bottle of vodka and Wendy tries to seduce him; however, they both fall asleep.
Paul is invited to Libbets' apartment in Manhattan, though upon arriving, is disappointed to learn that Francis was also invited. The three drink beer and listen to music; Francis and Libbets also take prescription pills found in Libbets' mother's medicine cabinet, causing them to eventually pass out. Paul decides to leave, just narrowly making the train about to leave for New Canaan.
Meanwhile, Mikey, out walking in the storm, is enchanted by the beauty of the trees and fields covered in ice. He slides down an icy hill then sits on a guardrail to rest. A moment later a power line, broken by a fallen tree, connects with the guardrail and he is electrocuted.
Jim and Elena become stuck, due to a downed tree, and return to the Carvers' house as dawn is breaking. Elena walks in on her daughter in bed with Sandy and orders her to get dressed.
Janey had also returned home earlier and curled 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. He discovers Mikey's body on the side of the road and carries it back to the Carvers' house. The two families are drawn together by Mikey's death and Wendy hugs the shocked and numbed Sandy in an attempt to comfort him. Jim is devastated while Janey remains asleep and ignorant to the recent events. Ben, Elena and Wendy then drive to the train station to pick up Paul, who is returning from Libbets' apartment, his train delayed by the ice and the power failure caused by the downed wire. Once all four are together in the car, Ben breaks down, sobbing uncontrollably at the wheel as Elena starts comforting him.Kevin Kline as Ben Hood
Joan Allen as Elena Hood
Sigourney Weaver as Janey Carver
Henry Czerny as George Clair
Tobey Maguire as Paul Hood
Christina Ricci as Wendy Hood
Elijah Wood as Mikey Carver
Adam Hann-Byrd as Sandy Carver
David Krumholtz as Francis Davenport
Jamey Sheridan as Jim Carver
Kate Burton as Dorothy Franklin
Michael Cumpsty as Reverend Philip Edwards
Katie Holmes as Libbets Casey
Glenn Fitzgerald as Neil Conrad
Allison Janney as Dot Halford
Jonathan Freeman as Ted Franklin
Barbara Garrick as Weather reporter
John Benjamin Hickey as Mark Boland
Joe O'Connor as Marty
The Ice Storm was first brought to the attention of producer James Schamus by his wife, literary scout Nancy Kricorian, who knew Rick Moody from Columbia University's MFA program. Schamus has said, "It's an astonishingly cinematic book... But, because of its truly literary qualities, people may have missed its extraordinary cinematic possibilities." Philosopher Slavoj Žižek has stated that Schamus was also inspired by one of Žižek’s books at the time of writing the screenplay: "When James Schamus was writing the scenario, he told me that he was reading a book of mine and that my theoretical book was inspiration."
Schamus brought the book to filmmaker Ang Lee, who was the first and only contender to turn the book into a film, and with whom Schamus and partner Ted Hope had already made four films, including The Wedding Banquet in 1993. Despite the obvious appeal of Moody's comedy of familial errors, Lee stated that 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."
To prepare for the film, 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.
Film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert gave the film Two Thumbs Up, with Gene Siskel calling it the best film of the year, and Roger Ebert calling it Ang Lee's best film yet. Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a rating of 84% based on reviews from 61 critics.
The film was entered into the 1997 Cannes Film Festival, where James Schamus won the award for Best Screenplay.
The film's release was limited, and it grossed US$7.8 million against a production budget of US$18 million.
For her performance, Sigourney Weaver received the BAFTA Award for Best Supporting Actress and was also nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe.
Most of the professional music featured in the film was independently produced 1970s-type music, as budget values were tight. Lee and 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.
Following the theatrical exhibition of The Ice Storm, the film was made available on home video by 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment on October 13, 1998. A re-issued VHS was released on September 5, 2000. The film made its DVD debut on March 13, 2001 before American distribution company Criterion acquired the rights to release a 2-disc DVD edition on March 18, 2008. Criterion released this version in a Blu-ray format on July 23, 2013.