[Note: This review may contain spoilers.]
In the opening scene of Lee Toland Krieger’s “The Vicious Kind,” a greasy-haired and bushy-bearded Adam Scott turns to the camera, takes a drag of his cigarette, and looks straight into the lens. He blinks hard, his lip trembles, and he begins to cry, only to wipe away his tears seconds later when his college-aged brother Peter (Alex Frost) returns to their diner booth. Scott’s character, Caleb, then makes a couple of comments warning Peter that the waitress (and all women, for that matter) are “whores” before harassing her for the slow service. Just as soon as the audience perceives Caleb to a be a sensitive man, even appealing to the audience directly with his deep brown eyes, he gives us whiplash, turning into a brash and misogynistic brute in seconds.
With this cleverly crafted first scene, I expected the film to set up an interesting premise about male emotions – how men really feel vs. what society tells them they should feel, and how men release their emotions as a consequence of this – but I guess that was just me expecting too much. Instead, it’s just another indie film about an emotionally fucked up guy from a small American town who has problems with women: business as usual.
Caleb is a 30-something guy mad at the world for a number of reasons, which apparently gives him reason to act however the hell he wants. Throughout the film, we learn that he’s a construction worker in Norfolk, Connecticut, who spends his evenings in bars or in motels with hookers; he’s a photographer of sorts; he’s obsessed with protecting his younger brother from women, whom he deems evil and manipulative; he hates his father (J.K. Simmons) with a passion; and his mother died shortly after she divorced his father when he was a teen. Of course, because Caleb has such a confusing relationship with women, he uses sex as a way of dealing with his problems. It turns out he’s even in love with his younger brother’s girlfriend, Emma (Brittany Snow), because (get this!), with her late 2000’s “scene”-style makeup and jet-black hair, she looks exactly his ex-girlfriend. There’s also a weird subplot about his insomnia problem, which seemingly only serves to show us a glimpse of his previous relationship and prove the two women’s resemblance through a series of snapshots of Caleb and his ex embracing in misty fields and shadowy kitchens.
Still, Caleb’s character of the troubled guy who has a fucked-up relationship with the female sex because of his parent’s own fucked-up marriage is not unique, especially to indie films, and it often feels like his emotional trauma is an excuse for his brutishness and misogyny (In one scene, he grabs Emma by the throat in the supermarket and threatens her life if she ever “hurts” his brother, but it’s okay because he stops her as she’s leaving to apologize! In another scene he forcibly kisses her in a diner, but it’s fine because he stopped by the house later to say he’s sorry!) The plot also seems to get tangled up and confused with itself: Caleb explains that he hates his father for mistreating his mother and abandoning her when she was dying, yet he takes his anger out on other women? There is also no hint as to what his ex did that was so soul-crushing, which adds to the confusion as to why he regards women so lowly. I guess he just spent too much time hanging around his chauvinistic dad?
The most frustrating parts of this film are the predictability of every plot point and the clichéd aspects of Caleb’s character. There was an opportunity to make a real statement about how some fathers mess their sons up and how men struggle expressing themselves meaningfully in a society that is constantly pushing the macho stereotype onto them. There are glimmers of this struggle in Caleb, with his endless apologies and tearful moments, but the message is never fully developed. Even so, Scott’s acting is the saving grace of this film – he manages to play the scummy guy with a sort of charming awkwardness. As much as I hated Caleb for being a douchebag who dumps his emotional baggage on women and then uses them for sex as some sort of “healing” process, Scott plays the role in a way that genuinely made me feel for the character. The moments when he breaks down after bottling up all of his frustrations for so long are moving, but I remain disappointed all the same because there’s no real indication that Caleb learns from his errors. Throughout the film, he voices his concerns about his self-destructive tendencies, but then repeatedly gives in to them; he can’t even control himself when it comes to protecting his brother, the person he claims to care about the most. He does channel his anger for good reasons, too, like getting into a bar fight with a man he saw groping and harassing a woman – but is this supposed to redeem him and cancel out all his previous mistreatment of women in the film?
Although Caleb seems to be heading in the right direction by trying to right his wrongs in the final scenes, it would have been so refreshing to witness that change occur over the course of the film instead of seeing his every impulse acted on and later justified by his emotional instability and childhood traumas. I would like to think that maybe that is the film’s point – that so many men have never been told “no” and as such believe they can act however they want, which usually means violence because their emotions are often not accepted in our society – but I know better than that.
Rating: ★★☆☆☆ 1/2
(Screencaps by me; gifs from my film blog.)