DISCLAIMER: I was supposed to write about Heaven is for Real in this post. However, the review of Heaven is for Real will be a fun collaboration with some colleagues and is still in progress. In the meantime, I’m reviewing Thin Ice as a logical follow-up to Murder of a Cat. Here’s the trailer.

If Murder of a Cat was Greg Kinnear’s film noir, festival flop, The Convincer (Thin Ice) was his film noir, festival darling. Directed by Jill Sprecher, Convincer is film noir meets black comedy heavily inspired by the Coen Brothers’ Fargo. Both movies follow increasingly desperate midwest men following poorly-thought-out-schemes to prospective riches, just replace William H. Macy with Greg Kinnear.

Convincer premiered at Sundance in 2011 to moderate acclaim, and was purchased by ATO Pictures. Then things got weird. ATO Pictures and production company Werc Werk Works (dumbest name ever) dropped Sprecher, cut nearly 20 minutes, re-scored the film, and re-titled it Thin Ice. The result is a movie with a messy, incoherent start and oft-rushed pace that nonetheless gets by on a strong cast and clever twist. The cast, which includes a senile and spontaneous Alan Arkin, neighborly & nerdy David Harbour, vulgar & violent Billy Crudup, slimy & slick Greg Kinnear, and vintage Lorraine McFly aka Lea Thompson, is straight fire. The re-cut couldn’t fail with a floor this high, but I still believe Sprecher’s original cut told a better story and easily had a better musical score.

The Convincer / Thin Ice (2011)

Convincer takes place in the dead of winter in Wisconsin, but really in Minnesota like Fargo where both movies were filmed. Greg Kinnear is estranged from his wife (Lea Thompson), on grounds of using money saved for her son’s college tuition to buy a fancy car with the license plate “MVP2.” This vanity extends to his work, where he constantly looks to inflate the fame and puff up the profits of his struggling insurance company. At the movie’s outset, Kinnear gives a speech at a large insurance convention where he also has a one-night stand and poaches David Harbour from a big-time agency.

Kinnear and Harbour have insincere smiles for days.
Photo Credit: ATO Pictures and Werc Werk Works.

Despite his wife’s deteriorating health, Harbour is constantly upbeat and seeks to be both insurance agent and kindly neighbor to all his clients. (This role is a far cry from Harbour’s gruff sherriff on Stranger Things, and I loved it). Harbour soon meets Alan Arkin, a senile old man living with his dog in the country, and convinces him to get an insurance policy. Ever the seedy salesman and boss, Kinnear steals the client. (Arkin’s role is essentially the same as in Little Miss Sunshine, but swapping profanity for a cartoonish European accent).

Walking through Arkin’s house, Kinnear sees an unread letter informing Arkin that he has a violin worth $30,000. Kinnear jumps at this chance for massive financial gain that will re-earn his wife’s love. He pockets the letter and offers to buy the violin for a few dollars. Arkin says he’ll sell the violin if Kinnear takes him to the bank the next day. At this point, it’s clear Kinnear won’t easily obtain & sell the violin and the rest of the movie’s plot will follow the misfortunes of his attempts to do so.

Alan Arkin and the million-dollar-violin. Photo Credit: ATO Pictures and Werc Werk Works.

Come the next day, Arkin receives a call and learns of the violin’s value. He opts to keep it, but leaves town a few days later. Kinnear tries to break in, steal the violin, and replace it with an inexpensive fake. But Arkin, on Harbour’s advice, has installed a security system and Kinnear must call the system installer (Billy Crudup) to let him in. Crudup obliges, even stealing a clock for himself. As the two leave, a neighbor catches them red-handed and Crudup reacts by killing him. (Crudup’s performance is a vulgar, bloody stone’s throw from the level-headed adult son in Big Fish but it was at least fascinating).

Then things truly escalate. Crudup forces Kinnear to help him dispose of the body (through a fishing hole on a frozen lake…which again is basically Fargo). The two then lay low and Kinnear obtains a second valuation of the violin at $1 million. Harbour independently discovers this valuation and has Arkin insure his violin at this value. Then Arkin discovers its theft and pins it on his missing neighbor.

Crudup is wild and unpredictable, and Kinnear mirrors the audience’s fear.
Photo Credit: ATO Pictures and Werc Werk Works.

With this added heat, Kinnear desperately tries to track down a buyer and be rid of the violin. Crudup pressures him to do so before the lake thaws and the body is discovered. Kinnear finally finds a buyer and heads with Crudup to meet him at a Chicago train station. While waiting on a bench, Kinnear sees a newspaper headline that “body parts have been discovered in a lake.” Kinnear and Crudup panic, flee the station, and abandon the violin in a dumpster. Then there’s a clever, wickedly fun twist. I won’t spoil it for you, but it wildly diverges from Fargo. Tonally, the ending is discordant with anything in the Coen brother universe and shares more in common with heist movies like Ocean’s Eleven and Nine Queens.

Convincer further differs from Fargo in its karmic vision. There’s a unifying theme that Kinnear can’t flee the consequences of his mischievous machinations. His one-night stand later dooms his attempt to reconcile with his wife. His manipulation and mistreatment of Harbour don’t stop Harbour from valuing and insuring Arkin’s violin which directly thwart Kinnear’s schemes. The ending only reinforces this universal karmic vision, which starkly differs from the universe of irrational, chaotic, and meaningless Coen brother coin flips. For these reasons, and because imitating Fargo isn’t a bad thing, Convincer is an enjoyable and rewarding film.

Greg’s Insincere Insurance

Kinnear’s character is equal parts selfish slick-talker à la Ghost Town or Someone Like You and desperate dormouse à la Mystery Men and Matador. These are character traits he almost always plays with aplomb. Their synthesis here perfectly centers the film and facilitates unique interactions with the wildly different partners of “law firm” Crudup, Arkin, & Harbour.

At the movie’s outset, Kinnear lacks self-awareness but fully believes in his ability to talk a big game. Despite a failing marriage and a failing one-man insurance agency, Kinnear rubs shoulders with the best of ’em. His license plate “MVP2” reflects his ego, he gives grandiose talks at big insurance conferences, and lies about the size of his agency to recruit Harbour. His swagger carries over into his plan to hoodwink Harbour. He keeps Harbour away from his two-room office, citing all agents work from the field. He further instructs Harbour to sign all new clients under Kinnear’s name, if Kinnear can’t outright steal the client. In essence, Kinnear seeks to manipulate Harbour into saving his business while looking for his own big score.

Slick-talking Greg is always a sight to behold, but it’s uniquely interesting here for the Kinnear/Harbour dynamic. Whereas the previous unwilling victims to Greg’s wily charms have been an equally narcissistic curmudgeon (Ricky Gervais in Ghost Town) and an adoring female subordinate (Ashely Judd in Someone Like You), here it’s the lovable, gullible, kindly neighbor. In short, we’ve now seen many shades of slick-talking, narcissistic Greg Kinnear and the personality types he meets. This is one of my favorites. (Granted this ego meets gullible dynamic was taken to an extreme in Mystery Men, just as the ego meets adoring female dynamic was in Nurse Betty).

It’s kind of fun to compare Greg’s vastly different expressions in this post’s four photos. Here, he’s freaking out over murder. Photo Credit: ATO Pictures and Werc Werk Works.

Once Kinnear’s get-rich scheme materializes via Arkin’s violin, his smarmy charm turns to desperation. It’s a slow build, which is a nice change from his uneven & unfounded desperation in Salvation Boulevard or rapidly-escalating angry desperation in Mystery Men. At first, Kinnear’s mostly frustrated that his attempts to swindle a senile old man are thwarted by simple stubbornness and surprise security systems. On the home-front, his attempts to woo back Lea (using $5,000 from a good-faith deposit on the violin) are ruined by a nosy neighbor dishing deets of Kinnear’s early-film infidelity. Kinnear’s straightforward schemes meet an endless stream of molehills like these that foster frustration.

But the power-balance flips and Kinnear’s mounting frustration quickly turns to frightened desperation when Crudup kills a different nosy neighbor. Crudup’s violent, volatile nature puts Kinnear in both fear of him and of being discovered. Kinnear fills every scene in the movie’s second half with a sense of growing doom and increasingly desperate acts.

There are two scenes I particularly enjoyed. In the first, Kinnear can’t stomach the thought of disposing the body on the lake and staggers towards shore barely repressing vomit. In the second, Kinnear visits Lea at church to asks for money. The camera lingers on the offering plate as it passes him, and Kinnear’s desperate glance conveys his temptation to steal from the Lord. Kinnear is a master of physical improvisation, and it shows both in these scenes and the larger desperation of the movie’s final acts.

Summary

  • Jill Sprecher’s The Convincer, a big hit at Sundance 2011, was re-cut and re-scored by ATO Pictures to Thin Ice. But a strong cast and fun twist make for an enjoyable movie.
  •  The movie is Fargo 2.0, following insurance salesman Greg Kinnear as his scheme to steal a violin devolves into murder, body disposal, and a fevered rush to find a buyer.
  • Kinnear’s smarmy-turned-desperate salesman centers the film, and it’s a true delight to see his vastly different interactions with the gullible David Harbour, violent Billy Crudup, and senile Alan Arkin. His performance receives a strong Kinnear Meter score.
Getting back to a solid GK film, after a string of lowlights!
  • Next-up: Let’s watch Anchorman 2! (My Heaven for Real post will be a surprise release when ready).

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