Before it bogs down in one too many moments of cathartic reckoning, "The Vicious Kind" is an unpredictable, off-kilter and scabrously funny piece of work.

Before it bogs down in one too many moments of cathartic reckoning, “The Vicious Kind” is an unpredictable, off-kilter and scabrously funny piece of work. Anchored by Adam Scott’s searing performance as an emotionally brutal and brutalized young man who’s more like his hated father than he cares to admit, this barbed four-character piece bears the fingerprints of exec producer Neil LaBute in its blistering dialogue, but also heralds sophomore writer-director Lee Toland Krieger (“December Ends”) as a talent worth watching well after the pic’s likely modest commercial run.

The pic establishes its m.o. in the arresting opening scene, in which bearded construction worker Caleb Sinclaire (Scott), sitting in a diner with his kid brother Peter (Alex Frost), unleashes a withering monologue targeting women in general and Peter’s reputedly promiscuous g.f. Emma (Brittany Snow) in particular. Rancid misogyny is rarely this colorfully written and forcefully acted, and Scott’s brilliant delivery, replete with tasty vulgarities and sarcastic asides, whets our appetites for more.

Krieger focuses more intently on dialogue and character interaction than on exposition, and “The Vicious Kind” is bracing in the way it gives no initial indication of where it’s headed. Details are parceled out gradually: Caleb is driving Peter home from college for Thanksgiving, stopping along the way to pick up Emma, whose attempts to befriend Caleb are curtly rebuffed. After dropping off Peter and Emma, Caleb doesn’t stick around for the holiday festivities, as he hasn’t spoken to dad Donald (J.K. Simmons) in the eight years since his mother’s death.

Sweet, trusting Peter is crazy about Emma and all too ready to lose his virginity. But Krieger juxtaposes this innocent desire with a series of tense, hostile yet sexually charged encounters between Caleb and Emma, who happens to bear a striking resemblance to Caleb’s two-timing ex-girlfriend. As secrets and recriminations multiply on all sides, the story’s ultimately redemptive thrust becomes more apparent, but the high quality of the performances and dialogue keep the film from falling victim to its dysfunctional-family-reunion trappings.

Best known for his colorful supporting turns, Scott proves more than up to the challenge of a juicy lead role: He spits out Krieger’s whip-smart one-liners with terrific gusto, but also powerfully embodies a man torn between lust and hatred, between his drives to protect as well as betray his brother. Snow, sporting black hair and heavy eye shadow, flirts with a seductive goth-girl stereotype and triumphantly deepens it.

Rounding out the pitch-perfect ensemble are the versatile Frost, in a winning change of pace after his uniquely terrifying turns in “Elephant” and “Drillbit Taylor,” and Simmons, who leavens his typically boisterous comic shenanigans with a real sense of Donald’s personal foibles.

Tech credits are pro, particularly the widescreen lensing of scenic Connecticut locales.

The Vicious Kind

Production

A 72nd Street Prods., Candleridge Entertainment production. Produced by Tim Harms, Lindsay Lanzillotta, Lee Toland Krieger. Executive producers, Neil LaBute, Chris Finefrock, Ryan Horton, Andy Rudenstein, Jeff Gross. Co-producers, Dallas Dickinson, Mamta Trivedi, Sheri Davani. Directed, written by Lee Toland Krieger.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Bradley Stonesifer; editor, Regino Roy III; music, Jeff Cardoni; music supervisor, Wende Crowley; production designer, Grady Cooley; art director, Nadya Gurevich; costume designer, Lindy McMichael; sound, Bryan Dembinski; sound designer, Sean Gray; re-recording mixer, David Barber; stunt coordinator, Manny Siverio; line producer, Dallas Dickinson; assistant director, Sheri Davani; casting, Rebecca Gushin. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Spectrum), Jan. 17, 2009. Running time: 93 MIN.

With

Adam Scott, Brittany Snow, Alex Frost, J.K. Simmons.

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