March 19, 2010

The Vicious Kind (2009)

The Vicious Kind, director Lee Toland Krieger's 2009, Spirit Award winning film, is about to go online at Netflix streaming. To get y'all in the mood, let's talk about it a little bit.

The Vicious Kind is a fairly typical family drama, but with a little bit more darkness, and 70s influences than most of these. Being a mainstream indie drama from the last 10 years, it's still trying to be heartwarming, but the effort is paper-thin here--a few minutes at the end, a few times pulling away from a character being deeply unlikeable. With the casting, the director seems to be trying to inject some comedy into the proceedings, to varied results.

Roughly, the film follows Caleb, played by Adam Scott, an estranged from his family insomniac who works as a construction worker by day, and semi-stalker by night. Dealing with the fallout of a failed relationship, he becomes suspicious of his innocent younger brother's girlfriend, Brittany Snow. The relationship between Scott and Snow should be the story, and works as a compelling look at obsession, jealousy, and masochism. But of course, the plot demands push this back to a forced resolution with Caleb's father, played by J.K. Simmons (you know, the guy from Juno, Extract, a whole lot of TV, and more. You know, that guy.). There are some vague hints at finding ways to make Scott an echo of Simmons, and to find patterns in infidelity--but it never fits with the rest of the film, and feels forced.

When the movie works, it works because it channels Five Easy Pieces. Scott's character seems modeled on Jack Nicholson's slacking oil rig worker. Both feel superior yet defensive of the blue collar lifestyle. Both abuse the woman around them who just wants to be loved. Both dress the same, and at Scott's best, both have the same crackling energy. The Massachusetts of Vicious Kind doubles for the Pacific Northwest of "Pieces," and at times the frenetic mood relaxes just enough to fit into the early 70s rhythm. At those moments, it can be transfixing..

This is a movie that could be understood as just picking up from and expanding on Five Easy Pieces' bowling alley scene--just this time Nicholson continues to follow the women he meets. Throw in Scott's friendly hat-patting of a slightly slow but worshipful friend, straight from Last Picture Show, and you see a direct line from the 70s to this.

But, of course, the danger of alluding to this kind of movie is to reveal the cultural weaknesses of this movie. The techniques are flashy in the worst ways--trying to impart mass importance to an intimate drama. Flashbacks, constant music, jump ECUs, and more mar this from any sense of emotional honesty. Vicious Kind opens with Scott dealing with a diner waitress that seems like it'll be an homage to Nicholson's classic scene. However, where in Five Easy Pieces the scene is an expression of constipated rage, in this it's a moment of weakness and failure to communicate (Sorry. Couldn't help it.

Probably most damning is how the writers misuse and ignore Brittany Snow's character. Despite making her the inciting incident, and letting her pour more energy than needed into the performance, the character is at best a cipher, and at worst a poorly conceived plot device.

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