Indie director Jill Sprecher returns after more than a decade with Thin Ice, a low-key thriller that combines elements of the Coen brothers, David Mamet, and Alfred Hitchcock with her own humanistic view of quirky people.
The movie stars Greg Kinnear as Wisconsinite Mickey Prohaska, an ethically dubious insurance salesman whose particular mix of egotism and loserdom is encapsulated in his license plate, which reads MVP2 (he explains that they are his initials, but obviously somebody else got there first). The picture opens with him at an industry convention where he meets Bob Egan (David Harbour), an earnest-looking salesman who talks his way into a job offer from Mickey. It turns out Bob has a lead on a new policy from a doddering geriatric named Gorvy Hauer (Alan Arkin), and Bob brings Mickey along on a visit to Gorvy's house. Mickey eventually discovers that this elderly gentleman is in possession of a violin that's worth $30,000, and the foolish old man isn't aware of its value. Faced with mounting economic woes because of his imploding marriage, Mickey sees a chance to swindle the old man, but soon his simple plan unravels into a nightmare when he becomes an accomplice to murder.
If we're talking about just the plot, Thin Ice is a rock-solid mystery. The story is complicated but it's cleanly told, with Sprecher deftly exacerbating Mickey's dilemma little by little until the stress seems close to doing him in. Where Sprecher never quite gets her footing is the tone. Part of the problem is that Mickey is so unlikable pretty much right from the start, and casting Greg Kinnear only accentuates the smarmy aspects of the character; he's so good at playing an unctuous jerk that, unlike many other tales of crimes gone wrong, we're kind of hoping he gets caught.
Sprecher's directorial style aims for a gentleness that doesn't quite suit the material. She isn't interested in building tension with her camerawork; she just wants to record the interactions between the characters and trust that the story itself will be compelling enough. On occasion she's correct, as the movie has moments of tension because we aren't sure what blackly comic turn the narrative will take. The problem is that the film never sustains our fear. She's aiming for Hitchcock, but the master of suspense was unrelenting, whereas Sprecher's storytelling instincts are much less forceful -- she's far more open to life's quirks than Hitch was.
The cast all deliver fine work. Alan Arkin's pretty much incapable of being bad, Harbour does Midwestern nice without an ounce of condescension, and Billy Crudup, who shows up as a hotheaded home-security installation technician, brings some menacing immediacy to the second half of the film.
By the time the credits roll, however, the emptiness of what Sprecher has done is pretty clear. This is a shaggy-dog crime story that never manages to make a bigger point about human nature and doesn't get under your skin enough for it to stick with you.