“All women are whores.” Caleb (Adam Scott) is not a man to avoid making gross generalizations about women — even after his younger brother, Peter (Alex Frost), tells him he’s met his first love. Especially not then. Sleep deprivation has made Caleb unpredictable, but it’s his recent heartbreak that’s made him such a bitter, vicious opponent of love, or anything that looks like it. He tells his hooker she probably was molested as a child. He is hatred personified.
This bottomless pit of rage and bile, of course, makes Caleb a fascinating person to watch. He’s not at all likable, at least not at first, but because he is so damaged and volatile it’s impossible to predict his next move. He must seem an even bigger boon to an actor like Scott, who has paid his dues playing various thankless parts (the jerk older brother in “Step Brothers,” a sleazy teacher in an episode of “Veronica Mars,” a male nurse in “Knocked Up”). Even though “The Vicious Kind” is an independent film, this is a plum role, one that requires an enormous amount of versatility because Caleb has to be both hateful and congenial, both mean and well-intentioned. Scott, through sheer force of mostly untapped talent, deftly juggles all these aspects of Caleb’s personality. He spews convincing diatribes about the opposite sex while seeming as though, on some level, he doesn’t really believe every word he says.
Hard cases like Caleb usually come from families repressing a mess of secrets. As expected, “The Vicious Kind” operates on a familiar but effective formula: Take a family unit mired in secrets and petty grievances, introduce a newcomer who knows nothing about this messy history and let the squirming begin. This approach has worked in similar indie family dramas, including “Junebug” and the lesser-known “Dreamland,” and it works here too because of the strong cast of performers. (The film, however, does veer perilously close to weepy melodrama at points.) The interloper in the case of “The Vicious Kind” is Emma (Brittany Snow), the slightly mysterious girl Peter brings home for Thanksgiving. Caleb, who gives the couple a ride home, is flustered by Emma, who resembles his ex-girlfriend. He does not expect to see her again because he won’t be at Thanksgiving; he hasn’t spoken to his father, Donald (J.K. Simmons), in years. Then Caleb starts popping up unexpectedly wherever Emma is, his behavior ranging from scary (he verbally assaults her at the grocery store) to bizarre (he lunges across the diner table to kiss her while Peter’s in the bathroom). She agrees to hide this from Peter, but it might not be out of love; it could have something to do with her growing attraction to Caleb … which Donald silently notices. Simmons is aces at silently noticing things.
Krieger’s script never makes it clear if Caleb and Emma’s attraction is genuine or based on a shared love of chaos and making things harder than they have to be. Both characters are suppressing walk-in closets full of demons; the tricky part is that Emma only hints at hers. Snow doesn’t have the luxury of shouting matches or raving tangents. She must communicate her feelings — sadness, anxiety, lust, fear — in very small ways. The character is somewhat underwritten, but she’s certainly not unnecessary. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite: without Emma, Caleb would not face up to the truth about his father’s break-up with his mother; Donald would not muster the gumption to make amends with his estranged son; Peter would not know the exuberance and exquisite pain of first love. There would be no story without Emma, so Snow, however unassuming, is vital. So is Frost, whose Peter is the figurative innocent Donald and Caleb go to great lengths to protect — from pain, sadness, life. His naiveté is a nice contrast to Simmons’ silent wisdom and Scotts’ volcanic tantrums. Peter is the one who leaves home at the movie’s conclusion completely misguided about what has taken place. He’s not unlike Ben Braddock in his misunderstanding of his girlfriend’s reaction during the final moments of the film. His innocence is both the ultimate triumph and tragedy of “The Vicious Kind.”