The younger brother is in the first flush of an early romance and is incapable of foreseeing trouble.
The older brother has weathered the storm of a relationship's disastrous implosion and his view is tainted, causing him to anticipate a painful, inevitable end.
It is the older brother's inherent distrust of women which appears to drive much of his behavior and complicates the Thanksgiving weekend during which the film's events occur.
The college-years relationship is great material for stories. Up until this period in a people's lives, they've only known school. In spite of what they may think, their lives so far consist of a simple goal of getting good grades and into a good college. When the romance comes along, it's such a pleasant distraction and a much more interesting goal, yet it isn't entirely real, because it is still part of the one-focus life. They're still in school working toward the goal of graduating, only now together. Yet, because they are preoccupied with this goal, they are not yet tainted by the cynicism which comes with experience.
The Thanksgiving movie is an interesting sub-genre and "The Vicious Kind" is a finely blended dark comedy which bypasses the cutesy cliches of quirky family members and eccentric townspeople familiar to the holiday genre, while making intelligent observations on why people make their decisions and how events shape their lives.
Immediately, the film presents the older brother, Caleb (Adam Scott) as a misogynist by having him tell his younger brother Peter (Alex Frost) all women are whores. When Caleb includes Peter's girlfriend in this category, Peter asks him not to speak of her that way. Caleb then asks how Peter met his girlfriend Emma (Brittany Snow) and Peter says he met her at the dorm while she was visiting her boyfriend. Caleb then says sarcastically their relationship is off to a great start considering she cheated on her boyfriend to be with him.
Emma is visiting Peter's family for the weekend and Caleb is cold to Emma from the start and unleashes his anger and suspicion on her in a startling scene in which he confronts her in a grocery store and warns her sternly not to hurt Peter, threatening dire consequences if she fails to obey.
Instead of portraying Caleb as a misogynist without explanation, as if it were a lifestyle choice, "The Vicious Kind" offers a catalyst for his universal distrust and dislike of women, Emma included.
So many films present misogynistic characters and ask the viewers to hate them for the trait, but the screenplay by Lee Toland Krieger, who also directed, offers an objective look at Caleb and the events which formed his views. This isn't the simplistic black-and-white view typically offered in pop entertainment. The audience is left to decide whether his outlook is justified. This is the way it is with all the central characters in the film. Caleb doesn't have the sweet romance his brother has and instead visits a prostitute. It's a painful for him and the viewer because it's obvious he's only able to buy the company, but he doesn't get the sincere sweetness and honest affection his brother receives from Emma. Nobody can.
Scott's performance is excellent as he navigates seamlessly from an angry, volatile person to a timid, remorseful and soft figure whose eyes well up at emotional times. Following Caleb's confrontation with Emma, he cries and apologizes. After berating the prostitute when she refuses to answer a question, he then apologizes, tips her and says, "Have a good weekend."
The exchange is one of several moments of humor which blend well into the dramatic aspects of the story.
"The Vicious Kind" not only provides insightful looks at its characters, but also an intelligent and mature view of sexuality. In a key scene, Emma and Peter attempt to make love, but because he is inexperienced, it is awkward and it shows on both their faces. Rarely do films offer such honesty and frankness in a love scene. Snow proves herself to be one of her generation's most promising actresses. As she did in the wonderful and tragically overlooked film "Finding Amanda", Snow takes what might be a standard role and infuses her performance with depth and complexity.
As Emma spends time with the family she learns more about the history complicating the strained relationship of Caleb and his father, Donald.
By the end of the film, Emma and Donald learn a secret about the other, but neither is aware the other knows it. Meanwhile, Peter doesn't know either secret.
The question of whether people are better off knowing the truth, no matter how unsettling, looms long after the film concludes.
Donald (J.K. Simmons) says to Peter people sometimes make the wrong decision and can't explain why. "The Vicious Kind" honestly and effectively observes characters making decisions with potentially long-term repercussions.
It does so with an affection, understanding of its characters and a fierce honesty making it almost impossible to dislike anyone in the film, in spite of some deep personal flaws.