DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: SUNDANCE REPORT #10: The Vicious Kind

Tuesday 20 January 2009

SUNDANCE REPORT #10: The Vicious Kind

The Vicious Kind (2009) dir. Lee Toland Krieger
Starring: Adam Scott, Brittany Snow, Alex Frost, J.K. Simmons


Lee Toland Krieger’s slice of rural melancholy is a mix of David Gordon Green and Neil La Bute. In fact, Neil La Bute is credited as executive producer. Unfortunately unlike La Bute’s or Green’s films this intimate four-hander fails to find the truth in character, instead relying of Hollywood characterizations to entertain us.

Krieger’s protagonist is a petulant son-of-a-bitch Caleb (Adam Scott) who is introduced with an extreme misogynist hatred of women. It’s clear he’s had women troubles in life - from the death of his mother to his former girlfriend who cheated on him. As a result he’s fallen back into a funk of self-destruction and self-loathing.

Enter Caleb’s brother Peter (Alex Frost) who is returning home from college with his new girlfriend Emma (Brittany). Immediately Caleb is confrontational with the poor girl. Peter doesn’t seem too concerned, ‘oh, it’s just Caleb, he’s like that’. Emma doesn’t seem to care too much when Caleb calls her a whore and physically manhandles her in a grocery store. Emma’s cool with this behaviour because she’s actually falling in love with him and he with her. Sexual tension lead up to events which resolve deep-rooted family conflict.

Krieger’s portrayal of Caleb as an anti-hero who smokes and drinks and gets away with his loathsome behaviour rings as false or at least some kind of out of place Tennessee Williams character. In fact the prevalence of Krieger’s smoking is so in our faces it’s distracting. Caleb is shot to look very cool smoking. Krieger uses slo-mo close-ups of his zippo lighting up, and often has actor Adam Scott speaking his dialogue with the obligatory cig dangling from his mouth. I think the film is supposed to take place in the 80’s, which seems to be an arbitrary explanation for all the smoking.

We would never notice this superfluous bit of actors’ business if the dilemmas, actions and reactions of the characters rang true. Unfortunately they don’t. There’s an aggravating theatrical quality to the story and conflict. We’re meant to believe that Emma would fall in love with Caleb because he of his Marlon Brando/Stanley Kowalski bravado. Girls like the bad boys right?

All real world logic is disregarded in the orchestration of the final act. Warning, spoilers ahead….After Emma and Peter fail to lose their virginity with each other, Emma retreats to smoking (again!) outside, where Caleb seems to sense Emma’s call for help. He arrives at the house with no explanation. Their passion ignites and they have maddening wall pounding sex in the spare bedroom without anyone noticing.

I kept thinking of films like "The Wrestler", "Happy Go Lucky" and even "Humpday" which are bringing a fresh sense of realism to familiar stories and characters. "The Vicious Kind" feels strangely out of touch with reality.


Anonymous said...

I actually disagree with your analysis of "The Vicious Kind." I preferred it over the last films you mentioned and liked that it wasn't "hyper-real." It seemed to me like a dramedy with classic elements of film style and story. Just my 2 cents.

Anonymous said...

I saw the indy flick, The Vicious Kind in Park City, and totally disagree with your "Sundance Report#10." You seem so obsessed with reality and seem unable to see beyond that. What about the positives; the story, the actors, the music, the cinematography. How about the audiences response to the film, they loved it. And, have you read any of the reviews, you are out of touch with "realty

Anonymous said...

sorry, that was "reality" An important word in my review.

Anonymous said...

I also saw the film "The Vicious Kind" and I would like to respectfully but strongly disagree with your post.
Just like reality, it was unpredictable... (and, like many fellow moviegoers in the screening, I was unable to lose focus for one moment. I didn't want to leave my seat in order to see what would happen next.) This film struck a personal chord as I related to certain situational parallels in my own life and definitely connected with the father-son drama and its influence on Caleb's character. This film was definitely in my "top ten" and I look forward to seeing more from this young director. I give him a great deal of credit for taking such risks and creating such an enjoyable Sundance debut.

Conrad said...

Saw The Vicious Kind at the Marfa (Tx) film fest. No reviewer I've read has pointed out that Caleb MADE Emma be the girl he warned Peter about. Not that she wasn't more experienced than Peter and, hey, it takes two to tango. And Caleb, Father and Emma all want to keep Peter's innocence intact. At film's end he's still unaware of any of the others' transgressions or the family secret. Its as complex as life

Tommy said...

I have to strongly disagree with your take on Emma and the smoking.

Emma wasn't falling in love with Caleb because he was a "bad boy" she was strangly attracted to him because he reinforced the feeling of worthlessness imbedded in her. She hides her smoking from Peter because she's trying to present herself as something she really isn't. Emma comes from an alcoholic home and is more comfortable with the cycle of codependancy that comes along with that. She constantly feels pressure being around Peter because he sees her as his peer in innocence. The whole film is about the sacrifices everyone made to protect him, and in a way Emma slept with Caleb to do the same. Caleb recognizes her being fake but overestimates her insincerity. I think that it's way to simple to reduce her character to a "girl who likes bad boys". She feels as tho that's all she deserves. Coming from a loveless home she cant see herself deserving conventional love. Emma and Caleb find themselves in the same situation as two broken people who do something horrific because they inhererntly believe that's all they will ever deserve.

Now I don't think that smoking is supposed to make Caleb seem cool, and to say that the film is set in the 80s because people smoke is (and i say this respectfully) incredibly closed minded. There are still plenty of people (intellegent and reasonable ones i might add) who still smoke cigarettes. The clothes and Venacular of the film totally lend themselves to be taking plae in the present. I think that the smoking is in there to show just how on edge Caleb really is. When stressed smokers do consume alot of cigarettes. Shooting the cigarette in slow motion shows that it's one of the few things he gets peace from. It's almost the only thing in Caleb's life that he can control. I've often found that smoking cigarettes can be a way of avoiding intimacy with others. It seems like people (myself included) are more comfortable talking while smoking because they are focused on the cigarette and not on how uncomfortable social situations can be. Calebs character was recently hurt and is really afraid to be close to anyone. He projects this fear onto his brother and insists that he's protecting him from the pain he just went through. The constant smoking just goes to show how afraid he is of intimacy.

I don't mean to insult whoever wrote this, but this is a story with depth about disfunction. If you don't understand the fragile emotional state of people who've gone through that kind of pain you'll never internalize what this film was doing (very well i might add). To look at whats going on on the screen at face value you and dismiss it as Emma likes badboys and Caleb smokes to look cool completely misses the point of the film. I'll speak from personal experience that I've never been through this exact situation, but I identified with the feelings behind what was happening. I though it was beautifully done and engaged me on a deep emotional level. If you haven't experienced certain levels of abnormality in your life there's no way to get this movie. To reduce key character attributes in such a "high school" way as you did i think is closed minded and forgive me for saying niave