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The Salton Sea

movie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: The Salton Sea

Starring: Val Kilmer, Peter Sarsgaard
Director: D.J. Caruso
Rated: R
RunTime: 103 Minutes
Release Date: May 2002
Genre: Suspense

*Also starring: Deborah Unger, Meat Loaf, Vincent D'Onofrio, Shalom Harlow, Anthony LaPaglia, Azura Skye, Danny Trejo, Luis Guzman

Review by Harvey Karten
3 stars out of 4

As a drug movie, D.J. Caruso's "Salton Sea" has the hallucinatory ambiance of Darron Aronofsky's "Requiem for a Dream" and the enigmatic force of Chris Nolan's "Memento." Recall that the Guy Pearce character in Nolan's film may have killed his wife, but his short-term memory is shot and he has to write notes to himself to confirm what he is doing day by day. In the arty, noirish "Salton Sea," which Caruso films with flashbacks at appropriate times to tantalize us in the audience about the real identity of the principal character, Danny Parker (Val Kilmer) who no longer remembers who he is. He appears in virtually every scene in a wholly believable and forceful role, and Caruso sets the tone by showing Danny playing trumpet while flames leap about him, ready to consume him in minutes. While our first reaction is that Caruso has gone surreal on us, perhaps conjuring up a vision out of Dante, the fire is real. Danny Parker is indeed playing while waiting to burn. As he unfolds his story we wonder whether he is a victim or a hero, a hopeless druggie or a man bent on justifiable revenge. For that matter, this is the sort of movie the evokes the comment, nothing is as it seems, or as the great lyricist William S. Gilbert once said, "Things are seldom what they seem,/ Skim milk masquerades as cream."

The title comes from a salty body of water in Southern California overlooking an area that might be called the diametrical opposite of Beverly Hills. This is the world of the sellers and consumers of a cheap, easily made and highly addictive drug, methamphetamine, or meth which hypes up its takers for days at a time, robbing them of sleep, taking away the desire for everything else in life except the next hit. When Danny Parker, on a trip with his gorgeous wife, Liz (Chandra West), sees her gunned down by two men in ski masks who shoot randomly in a drug theft, he is determined to mete out vigilante justice to the killers. A tweaker, i.e. a meth consumer, Danny hangs out regularly with his sweet buddy, Jimmy the Finn (Peter Sarsgaard), a man so bonded to Danny that he has Danny's head tattooed to his arm. Jimmy will prove instrumental to Danny later on, because his pal has turned police informer against the drug culture of the Salton Sea area, pitting him against an insane, wholesale supplier of meth who (rumor has it) has not slept in a week.

This offbeat tale, nicely shot by Amir Mokri whose clips are so dark that sometimes we in the audience could use infrared goggles to see the light shows the drug culture for what just about every film from "The Man With the Golden Arm" through "Trainspotting" to "The Salton Sea" affirms. The men involved in the selling are not to be trusted they are sinister looking and even the narcs, Morgan (Doug Hutchison) and Garcetti) Anthony La Paglia, are not the sorts you'd want to have over your place. While Val Kilmer, looking more youthful than ever with hair cut in a stylishly shaggy look, is always convincing as a man who is just plain down on everything but is kept alive by his thirst for revenge, Vincent D'Onofrio is the comic center of the film as meth kingpin, Pooh Bear. Wearing a plastic nose throughout because of his unfortunate compulsion to snort too vigorously and frequently, the unrecognizable D'Donofrio looks appropriately decrepit, having gained forty pounds for the role (which seems unnecessary since speed freaks tend to be on the skinny side, don't they?) Deborah Kara Unger, who is Danny's neighbor Colette, is regularly beaten by her man, Quincey (Luis Guzman). A foreign tourist may come out of this film wondering why all the excitement about visiting California, not realizing that just miles across the way, producers like Robert Evans (whose life is documented in the colorful biopic "The Kid Stays in the Picture"), have the time of their lives in the sunny climes. Animal metaphors pretty much describe how scuzzy just about everyone is, as D'onofrio's character employs a caged badger to torture people by scratching at biting at their gonads while one of the creeps is described as a man who does not like dolphins.

Copyright 2002 Harvey Karten

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