The Salton Sea (2002)

2002, Warner Bros. Directed by D.J. Caruso. Val Kilmer, Vincent D’Onofrio, Peter Sarsgaard, Adam Goldberg, Deborah Unger, Luis Guzmán, Doug Hutchison, Anthony LaPaglia, Glenn Plummer, Chandra West, B.D. Wong.

Decent Films Ratings

Overall
Recommendability
?D
Artistic/
Entertainment Value
?
Moral/Spiritual
Value (+4/-4)
? -3
Age
Appropriateness
?Adults*

External Ratings

MPAA ?R USCCB ?A-IV

Content advisory: Much illicit drug abuse, trafficking, and general dissolution; fleeting drug-induced sensuality; some bloody and deadly violence; revenge storyline; rough language and profanity.

By Steven D. Greydanus

Buried somewhere in the middle of the lurid drug-culture revenge saga that is The Salton Sea is a brief scene with a character who doesn’t quite belong: an older woman who drives a sedan with vanity tags that read "IFORGIV."

Like Tom Van Allen (Val Kilmer), the protagonist, she has suffered a shattering loss; but as she explains, "I gave my grief to Jesus Christ… and it helps."

This is not a thought Tom takes to heart. Nor is it one he struggles with, or indeed ever thinks about again. The quest for revenge is at the heart of The Salton Sea, and although in this one scene the film fleetingly acknowledges the possibility of an alternative to bitterness and hatred, it’s not in the context of any larger interest in or exploration of the moral issues.

So why is the woman in the story in the first place? She seems a kind of curiosity, like the tweaked-out, paranoid drug dealer (Glenn Plumber) who keeps a harpoon gun in his bedroom and a woman under his mattress. On the other hand, a drug dealer is obviously a character who does belong in a movie like this.

Like Darren Aronofsky’s 2000 cautionary tale Requiem for a Dream, The Salton Sea is a stylishly filmed excursion into a world of bottom-feeding dopers and dealers, of all-night binge parties and drug-related killings. Director J. D. Caruso, whose most visible work has been in hip TV shows ("Smallville," "Dark Angel," "Martial Law"), brings a strong visual flair to the proceedings; like the drug-dealing videographer in American Beauty who saw the beauty in a plastic bag swirling in the wind, Caruso can find visual interest in a stream of amber beer dribbling from an upset bottle, a trail of dark red blood trickling into a gutter and down a storm drain, or traces of blue hair dye swirling on a shower floor.

What the director can’t do is make either of Val Kilmer’s two personas interesting or worth caring about. Partly this the fault of Kilmer himself, a versatile but remote actor who almost never opens himself emotionally to the audience or creates characters we ever get to know. Whether he calls himself Tom Van Allen or Danny Parker, Kilmer’s character here is a plot device rather than a human being, a cypher who tells us (echoing Simon Templar, Kilmer’s character in The Saint) that even he doesn’t know who he is. (Tom, or Danny, speaks at one point about the moment when "you finally hit bottom, and you finally know who you are." I guess he never actually reaches that point himself.)

We’re meant to empathize with Tom for the same reason we were meant to empathize with Lenny in Memento: because his wife has been murdered. Here, it’s not enough. Tom’s method of coping with his grief (if that’s what he’s doing) is so extreme and bizarre that it all but excludes ordinary human understanding and feeling. I’m not talking about his drug-addict lifestyle, morbid tattoo body art, and spiky blue hair; I could understand a man descending into drug addiction and squalor after losing his best beloved. Where The Salton Sea loses me is when it asks me to accept a man embracing this lifestyle as a pretext or a means to some other end.

In spite of this, The Salton Sea manages to retain a level of interest throughout. Much of this is due to Vincent D’Onofrio’s startling turn as "Pooh Bear," the crazy Texas-redneck drug baron who’s clearly seen Hannibal way too many times, to judge from his talk about eating his enemies’ brains and the rabid badger he keeps in lieu of carnivorous boars.

D’Onofrio — whose credits include psycho-killer Carl Stargher from The Cell, alien-stuffed Edgar from Men in Black, and Orson Welles from Ed Wood — has an uncanny ability to transform himself, and this is one of his most flamboyant and vivid roles. Pooh Bear’s predilections may recall the inferior sequel to The Silence of the Lambs, but the character himself makes a stronger impression than almost any movie psycho since Anthony Hopkins’ first turn as Lecter in the original film.

The one character in the film worth caring about is Tom’s (or Danny’s) best friend, Jimmy the Finn (Peter Sarsgaard). Jimmy is in fact what Danny pretends to be — a tweaker lowlife who lives solely to party and get high — and he’s aware on some level that Danny somehow doesn’t belong in this world. Touchingly, Jimmy is tickled by what he considers Danny’s high-falutin manner of speaking ("You got language skills!" he chortles at one point when Danny says he’s "in dire need of some cash"). In another scene that could have been played for a smug laugh, Jimmy unselfconsciously asks Danny about JFK, whom he’s apparently never heard of ("He was the president? And he got killed?") — but then adds, with affecting sincerity, "Hey Danny… thanks for not laughing at me."

There’s lots of clever dialogue, shot through with post-Tarantino quirkiness. "He hates everybody," a narc cop says of his partner. "He even hates dolphins. I’m serious. Have you ever heard of anybody who hated dolphins?" Earlier in the same scene, the cop chastises Danny for smoking in a church: "It’s disrespectful. You’re smokin’ in front of the Virgin Mary."

The film has a strong sense of narrative style as well, from the elegiac opening image of Tom Van Allen blowing soulful jazz on a trumpet as fire burns all around him, to a whirlwind early sequence showcasing the filmmakers’ research on the history of methamphetamines, to a clever plot-point setup that in another movie would have involved clumsily pointed exposition ("Now remember, here’s how it works…") but here becomes a payoff in itself.

Yet the whole is less than the sum of the parts. Right in the middle of the movie is a hole where there needed to be a central character, and drug abuse, decadence, murder, lies, and revenge are all thrown together in a story that ultimately doesn’t seem interested in shedding moral light on such behavior. Even the woman with the IFORGIV-mobile and talk of "giving her grief to Jesus Christ" seems only another quirky characterization. Some people love Jesus. Others hate dolphins.

Tags: Crime, Drama, Thriller

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