A film sure to be a hit at various film festivals, The Vicious Kind is the type of indie production that wants to have some sort of insight into the human condition but thanks to a narrative which can’t figure out what to do with its interesting characters winds up losing a lot of its potential over its duration. The characters that are crafted here are strong and interesting, but the film doesn’t find a whole lot for them to do and what it does locate is scripted, unconvincing, and false.
The film stars Adam Scott — how many films say that? — as a chain-smoking maned named Caleb who hasn’t slept properly in a week. “Literally a week,” he tells us, which is an impressive feat. He volunteers to drive his kid brother, Peter (Alex Frost), and Peter’s new girlfriend, Emma (Brittany Snow), from college down to their small town for Thanksgiving, even though Caleb isn’t on speaking terms with his father, Donald (J.K. Simmons). The film initially portrays Caleb as a jerk and misogynist, although given that The Vicious Kind at least has pretensions of being a strong drama, we’re going to find out later on that there are reasons for his actions.
Meanwhile, Caleb also has off-and-on-again feelings toward Emma. He threatens to kill her if she breaks his heart and then a couple of scenes later he kisses her. All while the character of Peter fades into the background and the film becomes more focused on Caleb and Emma. She, someone who cheated on her boyfriend to be with Peter, is now possibly going to do the same with Caleb. Caleb tells her that she had better not break Peter’s heart before provoking such actions. There’s teaching someone a lesson — Caleb delivers an early speech claiming all women are “whores” and I suppose wanted to prove that to his brother himself — but it just doesn’t work.
You’re left with a lot of questions after The Vicious Kind ends and not the sort of life-defining questions you want a drama to make you think about. Instead, you’re left with annoying ones, like “Why did [character] act this way?” These are questions that films need to answer, either directly or with enough hints dropped throughout that you could probably figure out someone’s motivation through smaller or past actions. We don’t have that here.
What we do have is family conflict and relationships that often don’t go anywhere and when they do it’s not nearly as interesting as it should be. We learn early on why Caleb seems to hate women — and Emma, in particular — but and that even explains why he later tries to woo her away from his brother. Why Emma reciprocates these feelings is something we’ll never know. And the reason for Caleb and his father being at odds is both predictable and not as big of a reveal as the film makes it up to be.
To be fair, The Vicious Kind isn’t ever bad. It’s kept watchable primarily because of its leading performance from Adam Scott. I’ve never seen Scott turn in this sort of deep and dark performance before, but this is a testament to how talented he is. If there’s one problem, it’s that he’s too good; he overshadows everyone else, making them feel less satisfactory, even though none of the performances are bad. They just feel bad in comparison.
The downtrodden tone will get to you. The Vicious Kind isn’t a pleasant watch, nor does it intend to be one. If you look up the film on the internet, some sites erroneously list it as a comedy. I laughed one time. I think there was only supposed to be one laugh. This isn’t a comedy; it’s an unhappy drama. That doesn’t make it bad. Giving the characters nothing to do and not giving us a way to understand them makes it bad. But if you watch just for the tone and Adam Scott, I suppose it could be an okay watch.
It’s not even that The Vicious Kind is completely bereft of insight. It has a few moments of power and observation. The problem is that most of the film contains nothing much at all. A few scenes are repeats of earlier ones, just with small changes. How many times do Caleb and Emma need to meet on the family porch in the middle of the night? And how often does Caleb have to completely change personalities between scenes. There could be a reason for this but it’s not given in the film.
The Vicious Kind will find an audience — those who either see depth that I can’t find or are not bothered by not understanding its characters. The film has a few strengths which keep it from being a failure; chief among them is the performance turned in by Adam Scott, while a few strong moments of insight also help it. It’s not a complete waste of time, and if you like the cast you’re likely to have a decent experience, but there are far better indie dramas you could spend time watching.