The Vicious Kind is one of those typical films wherein a curmudgeonly misanthrope with a dysfunctional family learns to embrace humanity again through a forced holiday gathering. You've essentially seen this film before, except that at its center is a rather exemplary performance by Adam Scott.
The film follows Peter Sinclaire (Alex Frost) as he brings his college girlfriend Emma (Brittany Snow) home for Thanksgiving to meet his family — his father Donald (J.K. Simmons) and his brother Caleb (Adam Scott). Caleb gives them a ride to the old homestead, but refuses to join them for the festivities as he and Donald haven't been on speaking terms in years. If you think the source of this feud will be withheld and then dramatically revealed later in the film, you might be on to this movie.
The film plods along, hitting all the typical notes at all the typical times. It opens with Caleb telling Peter that all women are whores, which is, of course, later shown to be the result of both a recent painful breakup and a possible general character defect reluctantly inherited from his father, who also has an uncouth outlook on women. Caleb, who hasn't slept in over a week and has obviously become unmoored, notices that Emma bears more than a slight resemblance to the girl who recently broke his heart. If you think this will lead to uncomfortable romantic entanglements, again, you might be on to this movie.
The good news is that the cast acquit themselves fairly well. J.K. Simmons is given a muddled, problematic role but manages to fashion something interesting out of it. Brittany Snow gives a charming performance with a couple of particularly well-handled scenes, including one at a grocery store. Alex Frost is given little to do in the thankless role of the chump, but comes off endearing enough.
The main show here is Adam Scott. You'll probably recognize him from his numerous supporting roles in films like Step Brothers and Art School Confidential. He's always had a fun screen presence, but has remained one of those actors whose big break seems constantly to evade his grasp. The Vicious Kind certainly proves that he's got what it takes to be a strong leading presence in a film. If only the movie around him were better.
Scott takes what could have been an obnoxious, odious character and turns him into a strange, compelling creation. He keeps the audience on uneven footing from the very beginning, as the movie opens on Caleb alone in a diner on the verge of tears. He pulls himself into his steely facade just in time as his brother approaches the table. It's that unknowable, uncomfortable edginess that lives just below the surface of Scott's performance that draws you in.
The performance is fascinating, but it's so blazingly different and interesting that it also illuminates the problems with the rest of the film. His performance subverts the usual indie disaffected, too-hip lead characters (see this year's entry, Greenberg) by showing such "wounded" young men as being earnestly and upsettingly unstable. The film uses cheap cheats, including a wholly unnecessary scene in which Caleb attacks some men in a bar for harassing a woman, to try and cast Caleb in a more sympathetic light. Scott wisely never takes these easy roads with his character, consistently evading the temptation to make Caleb a relatable sad-sack and instead makes him a full-on manic depressive with hints of a borderline personality disorder.
It's a shame the movie as a whole doesn't have the courage of Adam Scott's convictions. The whole thing builds to a disgustingly trite ending that glosses over all of the damage and awfulness these characters have committed against each other by indulging in some cloying moments of forced, shallow reconciliation.
The film wants to have it both ways, being a cynical take on gender and familial relations while also being heartwarming and endearing. So in the end what can we make, for instance, of poor Peter, who has been so grossly betrayed and lied to by his father, brother, and girlfriend? Are we supposed to think him a sap who deserves the ride he's been taken on? Is his story more archly tragic? Or is there no tragedy at all, and are we to be relieved that his family has "protected" him by keeping all these things secret?
The film doesn't seem to know, or perhaps wants us to be able to interpret our own beliefs amongst such diverse interpretations. However, in the end no matter what you come to believe, none of these interpretations, nor the movie itself, come across as very satisfying.