THE SALTON SEA
Director: D.J. Caruso
Cast: Val Kilmer, Vincent D'Onofrio, Doug Hutchison, Anthony LaPaglia, Peter Sarsgaard, Deborah Kara Unger, Luis Guzmán, Chandra West
MPAA Rating: (for strong violence, drug use, language and some sexuality)
Running Time: 1:43
Release Date: 4/23/02
Review by Mark Dujsik
The first scene of The Salton Sea is one of the more inspired, fascinating, and promising openings to a movie that I’ve seen in the past few years. In it, Val Kilmer sits playing the trumpet as an extended interior monologue about identity and questioning his role in the flashback to follow plays on the soundtrack and flames engulf the building around him. What happened to this man to lead to such torment? What will this movie be about? We ask these questions with delighted anticipation of what could follow. Then five, ten, fifteen, thirty, forty-five minutes pass, and we’re still asking the same questions but the anticipation has diminished, replaced by annoyance. Not content with simply providing a twist ending, screenwriter Tony Gayton gives us a twist exposition. The only problem is that it leaves us in the dark about the main character and the plot for far too long. We have no one to root for or care about—no emotional focal point—because the central character’s motivation is hidden from us only to provide a cheap surprise midway through the movie.
The opening scene leads us into some flashbacks which will eventually clear everything up. Kilmer plays Danny Parker—or Tom Van Allen—a junkie, a tweaker, a speed freak. Life’s a never-ending party for him and his companions. His best friend Jimmy the Finn (Peter Sarsgaard) knows a whole cast of twisted characters who can get you what you want, and that’s good news for Danny—or Tom—because his associates need as much as they can get. It’s also good for another reason: Danny—or Tom—is a snitch. In his downtime, he assists two cops Morgan and Garcetti (Doug Hutchison and Anthony LaPaglia) find the big time dealers. But Danny (let’s just call him Danny from now on) has been a rat for too long; someone’s onto him and looking to settle the score. The cops want him to go away, make himself a ghost, but Danny won’t have it and sets up his own deal. It’s a big one—a quarter of a million dollars worth—so it means getting a big dealer. In this case, a guy named Pooh-Bear (Vincent D’Onofrio), named as such because his nose had to be amputated from using too much.
There’s one more vital piece of information for the plot. Danny’s wife was killed, but to give any more details would ruin the twist halfway through the movie. The Salton Sea is all about its story, but since we don’t know what that story is for so long, it’s not about much. For the first part of its story, the movie spends a lot of time exploring the underbelly of the world of speed users. It’s quirky but almost too quirky for its own good. Take one scene where one of the tweakers imagines a plot to steal Bob Hope’s stool sample. As the plan is vocalized, director D.J. Caruso visualizes it for us with everything going wrong. Why would the guy imagining the plan think everything would go wrong? The tone is all over the place. While Pooh-Bear is an unpredictable character, we don’t feel any danger from him when we should because he’s played for laughs so much. The quirkiness results in some funny moments, but suspense and drama are sacrificed as a result.
That we don’t sympathize with Danny isn’t Kilmer’s fault. We just don’t have a grip on his character, and when we think we do, we later realize we’re wrong. Kilmer is solid here, despite the flaws in understanding him presented by the screenplay. We want to sympathize with Danny, but we can’t. Kilmer’s performance works because he’s fit to undergo the changes of the screenplay so quickly, and he makes us understand what the changes mean in the context of the story and his character. Surprisingly, though, we do find the pathetic Jimmy sympathetic, mainly because as played by Peter Sarsgaard he realizes how pathetic he is. The show-stealer is Vincent D’Onofrio. An always dependable but underused character actor, D’Onofrio is delightfully demented as Pooh-Bear. You can’t blame him for the lack of danger surrounding his character.
The Salton Sea is a stylish thriller, but, to use a cliché, there’s no substance. Caruso and Gayton show promise as a director and screenwriter, and I’m glad they’ve gotten The Salton Sea out of their system. Both prove they can handle the workings of a twisted plot, but there’s something fundamental missing from this story: something or someone to care about.
Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.