When two of this year's most-anticipated films feature complete cretins in the protaganist's role, it's safe to say that winter 2012 marks the season of the anti-hero. And though the settings could not be more different -- Los Angeles in the summer and Wisconsin in the winter -- both films share a certain visual aesthetic. We're talking acting unfettered by Botox and collagen. Even theme-wise you could point to similarities; broadly speaking, the art of the double-cross. But if it sounds like I'm making an argument for picking one over the other, forget it. Both are a must-see.
It's 1999 in Los Angeles, and it quickly becomes clear that LAPD is dealing with the after-effects of a scandal out of the Rampart Bureau. For a moment I thought this was a reference to Rodney King, but in fact the King tragedy had taken place almost a decade earlier. This only serves to make Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) an even more terrifying mad man of a cop. He chases down and beats Mexicans for the fun of it, so it's not so surprising he can intimidate his female co-worker into eating her French fries. But it is cringe-inducing. There's a mischievous glee you want to be in on as he starts his antics, but he doesn't stop until his impulses are carried out to the ugly end. Then he goes home.
Two beautiful women (Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche) next door tell him dinner will be ready at 6:30. Are they neighbors? Is he screwing both of them? The answers are yes. Sort of. The domestic situation is straightened up when Brown's daughter (Sammy Boyarsky) asks if she and her sister are inbred. Brown laughs and says he married her mom and then her mom's sister (the neighbors) consecutively, explains they are sisters and first cousins, then goes on to preach the legality. And so it goes for the rest of the film. Situations become increasingly complex as Brown's role in each is revealed. His rationalizations are so tight it's easy to be swept along into his crazy world, even as you're shaking your head. Like when he says, "I don't cheat on my taxes. You can't cheat on something you never committed to." He is a bad cop and he's done bad things, and you can't stop watching.
My favorite scene includes many of the film's heavy hitters -- Harrelson, Sigourney Weaver and Steve Buscemi -- in a scene at the Rampart bureau. Reminiscent of the famous sisters-at-lunch scene in Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters, director Oren Moverman pans the room in a circle, following the brilliant and biting dialog between the characters as they dissect what to do in the wake of another Dave "Date Rape" Brown problem.
The film is a study in paradoxes, heightened by an excruciating attention to detail, a killer script and magnificent performances. Has Harrelson won an Oscar yet? This should do it. And this script deserves one, too.
Mickey Prohaska (Greg Kinnear) is another character you can't take your eyes off of, and also because you're watching to see how far he'll take a situation. Except he's an insurance salesman. The film opens at a convention where he's giving a talk on how to chat up potential customers (read: anyone he can engage in conversation). Later that same night, his wedding ring practically shines as he very meekly tries to fend off the advances of a woman he's gotten drunk with. By the time he hits checkout, it's unclear if the woman robbed him or if he's making that up to get out of paying his hotel bill, and we're only minutes into the film.
Mickey's business and marriage are failing, so when he runs across a potential dupe in the form of a half-senile farmer (Alan Arkin), we know he's going to take him for everything he can get. When it turns out the old man is sitting on top of a valuable old violin, Mickey practically loses his mind trying to get it. Just as it looks like everything is going to work out at long last, along comes Randy (Billy Crudup).
Like Mickey, Randy's a liar, a cheat, and a thief. Unlike Mickey however, Randy's idea of succeeding in a situation is being right. He shows up at the farm to install a security system, and ends up killing a suspicious friend of the farmer's. Thus when the violin lands in his hands, not only is Mickey's financial salvation is lost, even his life is at stake.
Crudup provides the real voltage behind this plot. He is absolutely convincing as a rageaholic repairman, and the way his character torments Mickey feels familiar enough to make anyone squirm. Particularly unsettling is that by the end of the film Mickey's view of the world seems accurate.
Check out the trailer for Thin Ice here:
I hope to see both these films show up at awards time.