Director Jill Sprecher’s midwestern noir Thin Ice clearly wants to play in the same sandbox as thrillers like Fargo and A Simple Plan.  You’ve got all the same ingredients: an unhappy salesman trying to con his way to success, the sudden introduction of violent crime, and all wrapped in those flat, endless snowy plains.

And for a while, it makes a solid contribution to that subgenre.  One of the nice things about Sprecher’s work (she also co-wrote the script with her sister Karen) is how it takes its time in the early goings; you half-expect this to turn into a character study of one Mickey Prohaska (Greg Kinnear), insurance salesman from Kenosha, Wisconsin.  The wheeling-and-dealing in his job has infected every aspect of his life, and Kinnear plays him as a guy who delights in his own unscrupulousness.

He’s the sort of fellow who tries to have “MVP” put on his car license plate (a nice little gag shows him settling for “MVP2” because someone else got there first), who’ll pontificate at length about what a savvy liar he is.  Mickey’s scams may have crippled his business and his marriage, but he still grabs at any and all potential hustles, be it wooing over an employee from a rival salesman out of spite or saddling an aging farmer of questionable lucidity (Alan Arkin, doing senile with far more subtlety than you might expect) with home insurance he doesn’t need.

It’s this last bit that gets Mickey in trouble.  After he discovers a violin of no small value on the farmer’s property, Mickey begins ingratiating himself into the man’s life, looking for an opening to snatch the instrument and make thousands, and just when that moment presents itself…

…Well, things go wrong, and Thin Ice finds itself taking a hard left from character study to noir thriller.  More than that I should not say, except that Kinnear proves himself to be as good at conveying mounting desperation as William H. Macy was in Fargo, and that Billy Crudup damn near walks off with the film as the last person Mickey would ever want to associate with.  Crudup has long been one of those great-unappreciated actors who make any movie they’re in that much more special (see also: Without Limits, Almost Famous, Public Enemies, Watchmen), and he works his magic on Thin Ice, too, playing a dimwitted thug who sees no problem using blunt force trauma to resolve sticky situations.

It is Crudup who provides the engine for Thin Ice‘s second half; I was reminded of Carl Franklin underrated Out of Time, and how it also saw its protagonist struggling to extricate himself from a morass of his own moral failings.  Crudup applies pressure, Kinnear improvises madly, and the law slowly closes in, and if Thin Ice had played this scenario out to its logical conclusion, we might have had a minor noir classic.

Problem is, the Sprecher sisters fold their hand in the film’s last ten minutes, adding an endless, convoluted explanation behind the previous ninety minutes’ various criminal activities.  That the central con is far longer than one might have expected isn’t a problem; I do take issue, however, with how the end sequence negates much of the darkness that Sprecher has cultivated.  Thin Ice shifts from “dark” to “lark,” letting Mickey – and us – off the hook way too easily.  We expect some kind of ethical shift, even if it destroys the character, but the film manages to loop Mickey right back to where he started.  Maybe the twist is more realistic, though it makes much of Thin Ice feel like wasted time – it’s hard to determine what, if anything, Mickey has learned.

Again, maybe that’s the point, but it lands with a hollow thud.  It’s disconcerting, after the head of steam Thin Ice has built up, to see it dissipate so quickly.  I’m fine if Sprecher doesn’t want to play fair with Mickey, but with the audience?

That’s a different story.

Twentieth Century Fox’s Blu-ray gives the film a solid HD transfer, free of print defects and compression issues.  The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is likewise good, even though the movie never really utilizes the track to its full potential.

Most of the bonus supplements are decent, if unspectacular: two EPK-style features (“Behind the scenes of Thin Ice,” “Sundance Premiere”) and some deleted scenes.  The real perk is the inclusion of the director’s cut (titled The Convincer), which runs twenty-some minutes longer than the theatrical edition (so, 115 minutes versus 95 minutes).  The two make for a study in contrasts: each version has different music and editors, and the shorter cut emphasizes the caper aspects more than the satisfying character build-up of the director’s cut.  That said, I’d be lying if I said the longer version wasn’t a hair too long, and both edits suffer from the same ending.  Perhaps the ideal Thin Ice lies somewhere in between.

More than anything else, Thin Ice demonstrates the power of the ending: a good one, and this would be a more positive-leaning review.  As is, this thing skews negative, despite the terrific performances and exciting noir atmosphere.  You really do have to stick the landing.

Thin Ice is now available on Blu-ray.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.

Culture Movie Review: Weak Ending Harms Otherwise Solid THIN ICE