Risky material matters more than the skilled technique and earnest performances throughout writer/director Lee Toland Krieger's battling brothers drama "The Vicious Kind." Granted, all the core ingredients of a quality dysfunctional family drama are here: family conflict, violence, sexual improprieties and as an added bonus, a backdrop of economic hardship. By setting his movie in small-town New England, a working-class place that has seen better days, Kreiger aims for the acclaimed storytelling of William Kennedy, Richard Russo and Russell Banks.
But Krieger is no Russo and numerous scenes that would have benefited from subtlety are over-the-top. Krieger takes admirable risks with "The Vicious Kind," debuting in the Sundance Film Festival's Spectrum program. There are unexpected, uneasy laughs from start to finish as well as a cast of unlikable characters. Krieger's risks fail as often as they succeed. As a result, "Vicious Kind" is overly melodramatic and extreme.
The fighting starts when Caleb Sinclaire (Adam Scott) picks up his younger brother Peter (Alex Frost), home for a Thanksgiving visit, and Peter's pretty girlfriend Emma Gainsborough (Brittany Snow). Caleb is an instant jerk, a real blue-collar bastard, treating brother and guest with equal rudeness. The fireworks start once Caleb drops them off at the home of their father Donald Sinclaire (veteran character actor J.K. Simmons). By the holiday's end, everyone will have acted badly.
Adam Scott remains best known for his recurring role on TV's "Six Feet Under" and supporting work in the comedy "Step Brothers." In his first leading film role, Scott is a villain too crazy to be believed. Then again, Tennessee Williams' Stanley Kowalski is over the top too, although "Vicious Kind" fails to balance Scott's firecracker performance with much-needed restraint.
Brittany Snow sports black nail polish and a pageboy haircut as Emma, arguably the most complex character in the film. Snow, who stands up well Krieger's misogynistic tale, also provides the film's best laugh with a sharp, unexpected punch to Caleb's face.
As Peter, newcomer Alex Frost has to react to all the craziness around him, somewhat playing the straight man. But Frost provides ambiguity to the story, arguably one of the film's best qualities.
There are great expectations when it comes to film debuts like "Vicious Kind." After all, it follows in the tradition of "In the Bedroom," arguably the best of the broken family dramas to come out of Sundance. But Krieger is a new filmmaker, whose debut feature film "December Ends" never broke out of the festival circuit. It's to be expected with an emerging filmmaker that not all of his choices would be successful. Still, there are enough qualities in "Vicious Kind" to warrant anticipation for what Kreiger will do next.
"Vicious Kind" is as polished as any feature film, independent or otherwise, thanks to good work from cameraman Bradley Stonesifer and editor Regino Roy III. The film has marketability thanks to the familiar faces of Scott and Simmons and the added bonus of playwright/filmmaker Neil LaBute as executive producer.
"Vicious Kind" is too overly melodramatic to qualify as an overnight success story. Still, it's a credible calling card for future work.