Bicycling & Freedom in American Film: The Ice Storm [From BA 42-300]

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"Wendy’s bike ride includes shoplifting a moon pie from the pharmacy and making out with Elijah Wood in an empty swimming pool."

Toward the beginning of Ang Lee’s 1997 film The Ice Storm, Elena Hood (Joan Allen) chats with, and is faintly hit on by, a man who runs into her at an outdoor library book sale. It is 1973, and we are in New Canaan, Connecticut. Elena apologizes for not joining his “congregation” after visiting a couple times the previous year, and the man—his shoulder-length hair, corduroy jacket, and mock turtleneck as of-the-time as the vague Christianity he promotes—begins suggestively explaining how he has lately “begun to minister much more in what one might call therapeutic environments, in small groups, and couples, and, on one.” Looking into the distance, though, Elena interrupts him: “My daughter,” she says.

Wendy Hood’s bicycle ride past the library is handled quickly. We see Wendy (Christina Ricci) in a scarlet coat and blue jeans, pumping lightly as she rides through an intersection on a blue cruiser. A jump-cut moves us into a slightly closer shot—the jacket lends Ricci a Red-Riding-Hood quality—before Lee cuts back to the original long shot as she rides out of frame. Elena smiles—it is one of the only times in the movie she relaxes her otherwise relentlessly-pinched anxiety—and says, “I haven’t been on a bike for years. When was the last time you rode a bike?” “They say you never forget,” the pastor responds. 

The rest of Wendy’s bike ride includes shoplifting a moon pie from the pharmacy, saying hello to a boy who repays her courtesy by pretending his G.I. Joe is shooting her as she rides away, and finally, making out with that boy’s daft older brother (Elijah Wood) in an empty swimming pool. Melancholy woodwinds in the score cast a pall over everything, and later, when Elena tells Wendy she saw her riding and that “You looked very free when I saw you, as if I were seeing my own memories of being a girl—there was something internal about it,” Wendy responds with: “Mom, are you all right?”

This happens throughout the film: Lee, as did Rick Moody in the novel from which the film was adapted, presents day-to-day life in New Canaan as suffused with oppressive, existential dread. Elijah Wood is either scared to death of or just entirely baffled by a football. Kissing—anywhere, for any reason—is presented as either dreadful or ominous. Everyone seems fouled in emotional lines: the family’s father (Kevin Kline, sewn into his polyester pants) is romantically entangled with a neighbor (Sigourney Weaver); Elena’s emotional self seems to have been strangled by some invisible cord; and everyone, regardless of whether they have or haven’t done anything wrong, seems tied down by guilt, depression, or both.

We are used to seeing bicycles presented as an antidote to commuter-traffic stress, fossil-fuel poison, or middle-age spread. In The Ice Storm, though, Wendy’s solitary bike ride is the only moment of ease or grace that appears to occur anywhere in town. This is bicycle riding not as an antidote to stress or indolence, but to the experience of daily life as a slow hell. And the duration of the relief Elena enjoys while admiring her daughter as she glides past on the blue cruiser? About ten seconds. 

Illustration by Matt Scobey

Evan P. Schneider