'Thin Ice' Leaves You Cold
Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
Traditionally, noir's habitat is urban mean streets, but something about American Heartland snowscapes welcomes the stain of black betrayal and spilled blood. Movies like "A Simple Plan," "Fargo" and now "Thin Ice" suggest that long, cold winters offer ordinary folk time to fall into -- and for -- impossibly sunny plots and promises. Such falls are seldom fortunate.
The third film by the Wisconsin-born Sprecher sisters -- director Jill and co-writer Karen -- "Thin Ice" plays as mild, less-than-lethal noir. It's clear the Sprechers ("Thirteen Conversations About One Thing," "Clockwatchers") are far more interested in profiling the quirky types who populate this hinterland farce than in plunging into the dark existential waters that might lie beneath their noir title. "Thin Ice" chronicles the slow caging of a domesticated weasel, sans intent to maim or kill.
That domesticated weasel would be Greg Kinnear, bringing skin-deep charm and knee-jerk venality to the role of Mickey Prohaska, a Kenosha insurance salesman. In Noirland, the notion of buying insurance against any of the ways you can lose everything works as nasty metaphor for humankind's inescapable state of risk. (See "Double Indemnity" for pointers.)
"Do you happen to have the time?" Mickey inquires of strangers in restaurants and bars, prelude to fitting his smarmy salesman's spiel to the dangers of whatever activity they are about to embark on. Hunting? Think about the liability of accidentally shooting your friend. Driving? Watch out for icy roads. But Mickey doesn't register personal risk; for him, the spiel ain't real. So at the end of a sales convention, when a super-friendly fellow named Bob (David Harbour) drops some green on the floor of the hotel bar, it's an automatic lure. (For us, that crumpled bill practically screams "Follow me down the rabbit hole.") And the drunken dame who immediately attaches herself to our hero, gifting him with a complimentary BJ in his room? Lacking a moral spine, Mickey just goes with the flow. He's the perfect mark, soon to be butt of blackly humorous contretemps. Trouble is, it's hard to tell if this emotional cipher ever really feels the hurt.
Back home, the salesman falls back into his sad little life, dumped by his disillusioned spouse (Lea Thompson), treating his bright, ambitious secretary like dirt, sinking deeper into debt. But the hook has been set. Remember Bob, that genial geek in the bar? Ethically challenged Mickey has hired the enthusiastic fellow away from a competitor, and now Bob's put him in touch with a doddery old farmer (Alan Arkin) who might be persuaded to buy a big policy. Hot to edge Bob out of the commission, Mickey spends quality time with the senile sot. On one visit, he discovers Gorvy owns a rare violin worth a bunch of money. So swears a reputable dealer from Chicago (Bob Balaban, aces at playing self-serving squares).
A confidence game is so obviously afoot in "Thin Ice," there's little to do but register the preposterous twists and turns that ultimately lead to a crime way beyond our weasel's imagination. As the trap slowly closes, we wonder why and how anyone would bother creating such an elaborate pattern of deceit. The payoff doesn't seem rich enough to merit such elaborate, time-consuming means.
As a bipolar ex-con, Billy Crudup instantly infects the movie with unwholesome energy. When the soft-spoken security-system installer (another noir irony) suddenly goes medieval on an innocent ice cream cone, we feel real danger's loose at last. Camerawork, courtesy of Dick Pope, is outstanding, as we follow Crudup's red van out into dim Minnesota (standing in for Wisconsin) woods to a frozen lake. In the dark, the snail trail Crudup leaves in snow, dragging a tarp-wrapped form out to a too-small fishing hole, fairly glows, an arrow pointing toward deep-dyed guilt.
Chuckles arise from watching these eccentrics in idiosyncratic action, of the kind one might enjoy while eyeballing the locals in a Heartland diner on the road to the coast. But this condescension-tinged amusement gets old. Kinnear and Arkin (pals from "Little Miss Sunshine") slow-dance around each other, perhaps a bit tired of their own familiar shticks. David Barbour nails the Lions Club bonhomie of a fellow without a suspicious -- or mean -- bone in his body. But he, like Michelle Arthur as Mickey's career-hungry secretary, pops in and out of the movie, good for momentary giggles.
A final word: "Thin Ice" was called "The Convincer" when pleasing a Sundance crowd last year. Violence has reportedly been done to this movie, editing-wise, which explains its truly lame ending with fall-guy Mickey explaining, via flashbacks, What Happened.
Kat Murphy once had the pleasure of writing a book-length comparison of Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway, friends and fellow travelers in fiction (Quentin Tarantino reckoned it "cool."). She's reviewed movies in newspapers and magazines (Movietone News, Film Comment, Village Voice, Film West, Steadycam) and on websites (Reel.com, Cinemania.com, Amazon.com). Her writing has been included in book anthologies ("Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West," "Best American Movie Writing 1998"). During her checkered career, Kat's done everything from writing speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, et al., to researching torture-porn movies for a law firm. She adores Bigelow, Breillat and Denis -- and arguing about movies in any and all arenas.