"Thin Ice" is a sly neo-noir from art-house darlings Jill and Karen Sprecher, Midwest natives who are often called the Coen sisters of indie cinema. They fortify their claim to that accolade with this "Fargo"-esque crime story shot in the Twin Cities in the winter of 2010. Slipperier than a snowy Wisconsin sidewalk, it leads us through ingenious plot twists, unexpected shifts of protagonist and antagonist, and scams that double back on themselves like a Mobius strip. This is an icy cocktail of greed, betrayal and murder to be savored.
The screenplay (by both Sprechers) is intricately worked out, the direction (by Jill) is assured, and the wily performances by Greg Kinnear, Alan Arkin and Billy Crudup leave you wondering if they're smarter than they look.
Kinnear plays Mickey Prohaska, an insurance agent in Kenosha, Wis. While he projects an aura of success with his sales awards and late-model Cadillac, we quickly see that he's less than meets the eye. He's a small-time scammer who tricks his marks into buying useless coverage and cheats his sales associates out of their commissions.
His second wife (Lea Thompson) has wised up to him, ejecting him from her house after he raided her son's college fund, but Mickey figures if he hustles hard enough he can buy her forgiveness. Which brings him to the remote farmhouse of Gorvy Hauer, the perfect sucker.
Gorvy's cluttered house contains nothing of value, with the possible exception of a dusty violin inherited from his sister. While finagling the gullible old farmer out of an inflated premium payment, Mickey overhears hints that the fiddle may be an antique worth much more than Gorvy realizes.
The plot takes a gut-wrenching detour with the arrival of Billy Crudup as a hotheaded ex-con locksmith who ensnares Mickey in his own con. The seemingly easy prospect of stealing the fiddle triggers a series of worst-case scenarios and escalating peril as Mickey desperately tries to evade detection. As Mickey remarks in chagrin, "beware of anything with strings attached."
The film, which has had a contentious journey from its 2011 Sundance premiere through re-editing and litigation, has arrived onscreen some minutes shorter but essentially intact. "Thin Ice" wrings good, trashy fun from its premise that you can't trust anybody. That goes for the artfully devious film itself.
The Sprechers' screenplay provides just enough information to allow us to arrive at the wrong conclusion. Dovetailing with the con artist theme of the caper, the leading characters are cast against type. Kinnear, who typically plays likable Joes, is duplicity incarnate, while Arkin, usually associated with astute characters, plays a dumb rube. They appear to be enjoying the challenge of offbeat roles and unusual material. Most viewers will feel the same.
The interplay between Arkin's blissfully naive Gorvy and Kinnear's calculating glad-hander are sublime. Kinnear, who still has traces of his baby-faced adolescent creaminess, parades Mickey's backstabbing charm with gusto. Like Fred MacMurray's shady insurance man in "Double Indemnity," he's a character without a single redeeming feature, yet as he gets in over his head, you can't help squirming on his behalf.
Crudup, playing a character of nitroglycerine instability, has a wonderful paroxysm of impatience over Mickey's malarkey, smashing an ice cream cone on the dashboard of his prized Caddy. It's startling, scary and funny all at once. Just like the film.