The Big Chill


The winter season provides American independent cinema with the ideal backdrop for explorations of characters that catch a chill no matter how many layers they wear to wrap up warm. As the languid summers of Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides (1999), David Gordon Green’s George Washington (2000) and Jonathon Levine’s The Wackness (2008) are replaced by the biting winters of Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm (1997), Adam Rapp’s Winter Passing (2005) and Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River (2008), the underlying tone of American independent cinema conforms to the chilly climate suggested by the consistently snow-covered aesthetic; whether these films concern the fractured families of Bart Freundlich’s The Myth of Fingerprints (1997) and Green’s Snow Angels (2007) or the self-destructive police officer of Paul Schrader’s Affliction (1998), they all feature characters who are, to some extent, frozen in terms of their emotional stance towards the people and the world around them. When the seasonal shift is filtered through the lens of American independent cinema, affluent suburbs, small towns and trailer parks prove to be icy environments inhabited by individuals who are prone to a severe case of the winter blues for a variety of reasons; however, all attempts at hibernation prove futile, especially when confronted with familial dysfunction, personal obsession or economic desperation.

American families have frequently found themselves in the cinematic deep freeze. The Ice Storm takes place in an upper-middle-class suburban sanctuary circa 1973; two neighbouring families – the Carvers and the Hoods – struggle to reconcile the tumultuous social-political climate of the period with their comparatively comfortable existence. Ben Hood (Kevin Kline) has embarked on an affair with Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver), while their children are engaging in alcohol-fuelled sexual experimentation. Ben’s daughter Wendy is less interested in improving her relationship with her father than she is in sowing the seeds of punk, ‘thanking’ the Lord for ‘letting us white people kill all the Indians and steal their tribal lands and stuff ourselves like pigs, even though children in Asia are being napalmed’ when saying grace at Thanksgiving dinner. While the Hoods and the Carvers seem to be heading for a nuclear meltdown, their fundamental failings are instead crystalised by the titular ice storm that assists with their suburb’s natural progression from emotional stagnation to still life. After encountering tragedy, Ben weeps uncontrollably, but the Hood family has grown apart to such an extent that this outpouring is clearly just the beginning of a long thaw.

The holiday season also serves to emphasise the deeply rooted differences of the dysfunctional family of The Myth of Fingerprints; Hal and Lena (Roy Scheider and Blythe Danner) live in an old house in New England; their four children visit for the obligatory Thanksgiving celebrations, but bring a lot of emotional baggage. Mia (Julianne Moore) is a gallery receptionist with artistic ambitions who is prone to making cynical statements due to professional frustration and sibling rivalry with her tomboyish sister Leigh (Laurel Holloman), while Warren (Noah Wyle) is brooding over a lost love and Jake (Michael Vartan) arrives with his overly passionate girlfriend Margaret (Hope Davis). Although a family secret is revealed and a few long-standing resentments are discussed over the dinner table, relationships within the household remain as frosty as the surface of the nearby lake.

If the detached manner of Ben Hood or Hal makes them less than ideal father figures, the tough-love attitude of Glen Whitehouse (James Coburn) in Affliction is as harsh as the New Hampshire winter during which the film takes place. Affliction focuses on Glen’s son Wade (Nick Nolte), a policeman whose increasingly obsessive investigation of an apparent hunting accident is influenced by his relationship with his violent, alcoholic father, his difficult dealings with his ex-wife (Mary Beth Hurt) and daughter, and the recent death of his mother from hypothermia. While the stonily silent Hal is defined by his relative absence, Glen is notable for his sheer presence, which reaches its peak in volcanic fits of anger. Recognising his own potential for such rage, Wade keeps his true feelings towards his father, ex-wife and fellow police officers on ice, until the combination of the professional fallout from his botched murder investigation and a particularly nasty case of toothache provoke his inner demons.

The father-daughter dynamic of Winter Passing is equally chilly, if ultimately less combustible; Reese Holdin (Zooey Deschanel), a depressed actress living in New York City, is approached by a publishing agent who offers her $100,000 if she can provide a series of letters written by her father and late mother, both famous writers. Returning home as the autumn leaves are falling, Reese discovers that her father Don (Ed Harris) has taken in two houseguests – Christian musician Corbit (Will Ferrell) and literature student Shelly (Amelia Warner) – and moved into the garage. Don, Corbit and Shelly have formed a makeshift family unit as a means of collectively dealing with individual pain, but Reese initially refuses to respect their fragile yet functional arrangement; she behaves coolly towards Shelly and responds to Corbit’s rejection of her sexual advances in a condescending manner, although she warms up a little after reading the letters exchanged between her mother and father. Winter Passing frames grief as a season that will eventually change, with the characters seeking solace in artistic pursuits, heavy sweaters and warm food.

While the families of The Ice Storm, The Myth of Fingerprints and Winter Passing are able to deal with their differences amid environments of material comfort, the protagonists of Snow Angels and Frozen River exist at the other end of the social-economic spectrum. Indeed, the cold, grey skies of both films feel perpetual rather than seasonal as the wintery landscapes lend a fatalistic pall to their respective proceedings. The nondescript small town community depicted in Snow Angels is as close-knit as it is uncommunicative, with events revolving around the estranged couple of Annie (Kate Beckinsale) and Glenn (Sam Rockwell); Annie works as waitress and is having an affair with the husband of one of her co-workers, while Glenn is an alcoholic who is aiming to stay on the wagon with the assistance of religion. Glenn is trying to prove to Annie that he has achieved sufficient balance in order to see more of their daughter Tara, but an accident that echoes the tragedy in The Ice Storm sends him on a misguided path for ‘redemption’.

Frozen River is more thriller than drama but, as with Affliction, it deals with someone who keeps emotion in check as a means of getting through the day; Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo) is struggling to raise two sons when she discovers that her compulsive gambler husband has disappeared with the funds she had saved to purchase a mobile home. To make the payment, Ray begins trafficking illegal immigrants from Canada to the United States with the assistance of Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham), a Mohawk bingo-parlour employee. Ray’s crossing of the frozen St Lawrence River serves as both a suspenseful narrative device and a metaphor for the impenetrable exterior she develops to deal with her financial difficulties, but she is unable to maintain the façade of a tough trafficker; after smuggling across a Pakistani couple, Ray and Lila backtrack to rescue a discarded duffle-bag when they realise that it contains a baby rather than bombs, and Ray ultimately surrenders to the police to prevent Lila from being excommunicated by the Indian community.

Of course, the frozen emotions of American independent cinema are not exclusive to films that take place at the time of year when the days are short and the nights are long; Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale (2005) and Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (2008) all deal with characters who struggle to relate to one another and bypass emotional engagement in favour of passive-aggressive exchanges or intellectual reference points, displaying a calculated coldness regardless of whether the temperature has them wandering around in a T-shirt or an overcoat. However, the aesthetic potential of the winter season has enabled certain filmmakers to fully embrace the poetic potential of their material by placing protagonists in physical landscapes that are every bit as glacial as their personalities; the climax of The Ice Storm shows a Connecticut suburban that is completely frozen over due to a sudden burst of bad weather, a truly cinematic sequence that speaks volumes about the vacuum that its characters are inhabiting without resorting to vehement verbal sparring. The best examples of this sporadic sub-genre – The Ice Storm, Affliction and Snow Angels – are as visually beautiful as they are thematically bleak, painterly portraits of people whose emotional moods are so in synch with the season that they may actually resent the arrival spring.

John Berra