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Who Broke Thin Ice?

A regional noir suffers from studio interference and an over-plotted finish.



After seeing writer-director Jill Sprecher's new film Thin Ice, I left the theater feeling foolish. Although Thin Ice is an engaging crime picture with some good sweaty moments, Sprecher introduced a couple of highly fishy plot twists toward the end that felt more contrived than clever. I didn't want to rewatch her movie as much as I wanted someone else to rewatch it to confirm the existence of some carefully placed clues.

Wondering what I'd missed, I started to look around and see whether any other film critics shared my misgivings. Roger Ebert, who reviewed Thin Ice on February 22nd, praised the film's actors while voicing similar complaints about its excessive trickiness.

Ebert claimed that "the explanation [for the story], when it comes, cannot be said to fall into place with a smoothly oiled click, but feels more like an alibi." But because he's Roger Ebert, he later received a letter from Sprecher herself, informing him that "[t]he producers and distributor of our film completely re-edited it without me. Nearly 20 minutes were cut; the structure rearranged; outtakes used; voiceover and characters dropped; key plot points omitted; a new score added. Although our names contractually remain on the film, my sister and I do not consider 'Thin Ice' to be our work."

Editing, narrative, performance, sound, plot: According to Sprecher, every part of the film's formal structure had been tampered with. On one hand, such complaints hardly seem like news. What wounded and unhappy filmmaker wouldn't claim studio interference?

On the other hand, Sprecher is not your typical wounded filmmaker, even though Thin Ice is hardly Touch of Evil. She has only made three feature films, but her debut, 1997's temp-agency comedy Clockwatchers, is one of the great American movies about work.

Like Clockwatchers, the events in Thin Ice spring from work-related desperation. A piddly insurance salesman (Greg Kinnear) who's deeply in debt sees a chance to swipe a rare violin from a spacey old farmer (Alan Arkin). His scheme is complicated when he meets up with a disgruntled, possibly unhinged locksmith (Billy Crudup), who eventually involves him in far more sinister crimes. As the complications and mistakes mount, Kinnear can only sit and take it. At one point, he slumps, bleary-eyed and defeated, at his desk and watches an icicle melt. All hope looks lost. Then, of course, along comes that plot twist.

Thin Ice has been compared to recent Midwestern neo-noirs like A Simple Plan and Fargo. However, I'm not sure what, aside from the presence of snow, makes this film particularly Midwestern. Is it Arkin's attempt to sound Scandinavian? Is it the joke about ice-fishing as "a slow sport"? Or is it the first-ever on-screen reference to Rhinelander, Wisconsin?

As a native Midwesterner, I'm almost always disappointed by the movies' view of my neck of the woods. I can't claim that fly-over country has suffered from the same cinematic malpractice as the South, but until the DVD comes out, I'll be curious about how much, if any, of Thin Ice's excised footage fleshed out its characters' distinctive geographical location.

Thin Ice
Opening Friday, March 16th
Studio on the Square

Related Film

Thin Ice

Official Site:

Director: Jill Sprecher

Writer: Jill Sprecher and Karen Sprecher

Producer: Mary Frances Budig, Elizabeth Redleaf and Christine Kunewa Walker

Cast: Greg Kinnear, Alan Arkin, Billy Crudup, David Harbour, Lea Thompson, Bob Balaban, Michelle Arthur, Michelle Hutchison, Sue Scott and Chris Carlson

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