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The Salton Sea   B-

Castle Rock Entertainment

Year Released: 2002
MPAA Rating: R
Director: D.J. Caruso
Writer: Tony Gayton
Cast: Val Kilmer, Vincent D'Onofrio, Adam Goldberg, Luis Guzman, Doug Hutchison, Anthony LaPaglia, Glenn Plummer, Peter Sarsgaard, Deborah Kara Unger.

Review by Rob Vaux

The Salton Sea exists in a realm beyond ordinary criticism. A neo-noir thriller as compelling as it is repugnant, it holds images and themes of such haunting power that you're willing to overlook the unpleasant stench surrounding it. Noir never shirks from the dark side of life, of course, but this go 'round seems particularly intent on making us squirm. Its centerpiece is the realm of "tweakers," drug-addled speed freaks who shoot up liquid death as so many other doomed souls have before. They're supposed to be different in The Salton Sea because they sport tattoos and body piercings, but their kind has existed from time immemorial. Only the fashions change.

At least we have a intriguing guide to show us their world: Danny Parker (Val Kilmer), a former jazz trumpet player now caught in a downward spiral of four-day meth trips and petty crime. He sells out his fellow tweakers to a pair of corrupt cops (Doug Hutchison and Anthony LaPaglia) while drifting aimlessly through the twisted L.A. landscape in search of something he can't define. Director D.J. Caruso unfurls these initial scenes like any other Tarantino clone: lots of tart dialogue, in-joke humor, and borderline sadism masking as social commentary. The Salton Sea benefits from some sharp visuals (it opens with Danny playing the trumpet in a burning room, a sterling hook if ever there was), but it can't shake its terminal smugness, or the way it revels in the worst elements of its subject matter. It takes such shameless glee in showing us the freak show, that the impressive filmmaking on display is lost amid unnecessary shudders.

That's the case early on anyway. As The Salton Sea develops, however, it becomes apparent that something else lurks beneath the mondo-trasho exterior. Like any good noir protagonist, Danny has secrets to hide, and his shiftless meandering covers up a very focused goal. A nominal bad guy shows up -- a meth dealer named Pooh Bear (Vincent D'Onofrio) who's done so much junk that his nose has rotted off. Danny wants to cut a big deal with him, a quarter million dollars worth of blow, but he won't say how or why. The Salton Sea finds itself during these scenes, shedding light on the early sequences and lifting the veil of sneering doom that cover the first 45 minutes. Caruso slowly brings new depth to his characters, showing different sides to their personality and daring to infuse the proceedings with real emotion. That humanity keeps The Salton Sea from collapsing under its own pretension. The cinematography remains potent at all times, and though the gloominess never lifts (nor should it, considering the genre), the developments in the final third make it more that just a pose.

Kilmer exhibits a natural intelligence, and his ever-present charm gives us something to hold on to while the plot twists mount. Danny could easily be a gimmick (and Kilmer has coasted on such characters in the past), but The Salton Sea ultimately refuses to treat him as such. The supporting cast delivers as well -- LaPaglia and Hutchison make a fine pair of antagonists, and Deborah Kara Unger turns in a strong performance as a strung-out femme fatale -- topped by D'Onofrio's hideously compelling turn as Pooh Bear. In fact, Pooh Bear makes a good microcosm for the film as a whole. He's repellent, frightening, and eerily unpleasant, yet somehow, we can't look away from him. D'Onofrio brings an eerie charisma to this vile character; even when he removes his fake nose to reveal the skeletal holes beneath, we can't help but be fascinated.

So too, does The Salton Sea flirt with utter audience alienation, even as it puts us under its spell. The darker aspects threaten to overwhelm it at times, reducing all that rich atmosphere to cynical postmodernism and borderline despair. Yet it pulls back from the abyss just often enough to deliver some genuine human feeling -- real pain and desire to offset the sick jokes. Precious few movies in the post-Pulp Fiction mold have managed that trick, and The Salton Sea deserves some accolades for the accomplishment. A film this bleak won't appeal to everyone, but at least the filmmakers had to good sense to make sure it appealed to someone.

Review published 05.17.2002.

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