The indies about dysfunctional families are many in number but tend to be low in quality. It's a subgenre that lends itself to tired cliché, poor comedy, and over-the-top preciosity. The Vicious Kind throws all that bunk out the window and commits 100% to its tropes – this is not a family where everybody gets along at the end of the day and we're just there to laugh and feel good about ourselves. The father is not a goofy slacker, but a deeply troubled, unfaithful man. The older brother doesn't resent his younger sibling, he actively betrays him. He's not on uneasy terms with his father, he's altogether estranged. The mother isn't the passive observer trying to keep it together; she died many years ago. This is still a comedy, but a very dark one.
On a more specific level, the film is about Caleb, an embittered misogynist with a fervent belief that "all women are whores". While giving his brother and his new girlfriend a drive home for Thanksgiving, he develops a peculiar set of feelings for her – she so resembles his ex, who two-timed him
twice. On the one hand, he repeatedly warns her not to cheat on his brother. On the other, he can't quite leave her alone. Only after seeing her can he get some sleep; an insomniac, he seems to be hurtling toward self-destruction, his actions erratic. He says awful things and then apologizes for them sincerely. He gets into fights and treats people like dirt. He's the archetypal anti-hero, a chain-smoking, unhappy construction worker. One wonders why he ended up where he is, because he's clearly an intelligent man.
The other segment of the film deals with his relationship with his father, long ago foiled when a rift formed between him and his wife. The first time Donald sees Caleb in eight years, he threatens to shoot him. Their arc, however, much like every one in this film, is ultimately cathartic.
Caleb is so certain of every woman's innate unfaithfulness, he assumes it of Emma as soon as he meets her. It's only after the deed is done and he gives in to his baser urges that he realizes that he himself is the facilitator, the cause. His theories on women are certainly reinforced by her actions, but only because of him. He is the cause of everything he hates, and it forces him to reevaluate his perspective and maybe, finally, lay his past to rest.
It's a humble plot, but Krieger's confident direction and zipline editing that never allows for us to lose sight of Caleb's desperation keeps the story from ever growing stale. Of course, the true reason it works so well is the acting; this is one of the year's finest ensembles.
Brittany Snow plays the kind of character who can easily become forgettable or two-dimensional, but keeps a kind of earthy realism to her characterization. It's a subtle performance, one easily passed over, but her image of repression and conflicting desire sticks in the memory after the film is long over.
Now, J.K. Simmons – here is an actor who needs a big, juicy role in a big, juicy film, because he so clearly has the potential to win an Oscar. He's played the father figure before, but here, sporting a light New York drawl (or some similar accent, so subtle I can't quite place it), he paints the portrait of a sad, regretful old man trying to cling to scraps of his youth and keep his sons on his side along the way. Caleb's betrayal hit him hard.
Adam Scott's is a performance that was not what I was expecting. Caleb is the role many would kill for, a mess of a man, bitter, angry, miserable in turn, jaded with the world. He wears a shell of cynicism and brusque rudeness five inches thick, and then suddenly lets it melt and shows something of the wounded creature he hides within. He has a few scenes that are devastating in their honesty – and then turns around and delivers the clever barbs the script gives him with easy aplomb.
With that whip-smart dialogue never impeding the film's sincerity and a wonderful ensemble, The Vicious Kind packs an emotional punch that most films of its sort lack.