Financially strapped small-town Wisconsin insurance agent Greg Kinnear thinks he sees a way out of his troubles: a rare violin, owned by absent-minded bachelor farmer Alan Arkin, who promises to pass along the instrument if Kinnear helps him run some errands. Kinnear knows music-shop owner Bob Balaban will offer $25,000 for the violin—money he could use to put a dent in his debts and maybe attend his company’s annual convention in Aruba—but then Kinnear gets greedy and asks for an appraisal, and conspires to sneak into Arkin’s house to swap the good violin with a dummy. That’s when he crosses paths with Billy Crudup, an ex-con security-alarm installer who senses right away that Kinnear is up to something, and wants a piece of the action.
That’s the setup for Thin Ice, a twisty comic noir by writer-director Jill Sprecher and her sister and co-writer Karen Sprecher; the duo previously collaborated on the well-regarded indies Clockwatchers and Thirteen Conversations About One Thing. But the setup alone doesn’t do justice to the hard turns Thin Ice takes, any more than comparisons to the Coen brothers’ similarly snowbound and sardonic Fargo fully explains what this movie is. Yes, Kinnear’s desperation resembles William H. Macy’s money woes in Fargo, and yes, Crudup gives a jittery performance not unlike Steve Buscemi’s. But Thin Ice has plenty of its own surprises to spring, as it charts how a man who spends his life playing the angles can miss the hard brick wall he’s about to smash into.
In fact, the biggest problem with Thin Ice is that by the end, it becomes something of a surprise-delivery device, without much of a point, per se. Also, the movie takes some dark, violent turns once Crudup enters the picture, and loses some of its initial soft, regional charm. But Kinnear and Crudup are funny, and the plot does fold together with the kind of cruel logic that these sorts of twist-a-thons often lack. And the Sprechers have a keen eye and ear for the details that define their hero, whether it’s the way he keeps stumbling over clumps of snow, his “MVP2” license plate (because someone else got “MVP”), or his grumbling that in his town, there are only two seasons: “Winter and roadwork.”