There are some things in this world worth waiting for. Ageing ungraciously as one stands in line at an Angelika Film Center to purchase an overpriced bottled water as fat and sodium addicts continually cut in front of you is certainly not one of them. Waiting for theater management to finally screen a film they have been sitting on for months is another frustration that tests the quality of one’s patience. But if it is a film like “The Salton Sea,” many things can be forgiven. This time.
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Danny Parker is a “tweaker,” a Methedrine addict whose life revolves around getting high with his friends and fellow tweakers. Tattooed and emaciated to a man—and woman—they often congregate for days at a time to party in circumstances only they and Hieronymous Bosch (and perhaps Francis Bacon) would feel at home in. This is not to say they are not without their ambitions, however. One scheme involves stealing a piece, quite literally, of national treasure that should fetch a hefty price on Ebay: Bob Hope’s stool. But perhaps that’s just the gack talking. “When you finally hit bottom…” Danny says in a voice over narration, “…you know who you are, because you can’t go any lower.”
But things are not as gloomy as they might sound. Danny has a fast friend and Sancho Panza in a tweaker named Jimmy the Finn (Peter Sarsgaard). They laugh, drink, get high together and even manage to avoid the pitfalls that often accompany an errand to score more gack for the group; such as flying speargun bolts hurled at them from a brain-fried supplier. It is a friendship of such ease and trust that even a clueless question from Jimmy, such as who JFK was exactly, only warrants an honest response from Danny, not ridicule.
But Danny is not exactly what he appears to be. In the top of his closet is a suitcase containing the mufti of another man. A dark suit, dress shirt, alligator shoes, black straw fedora and the trumpet that belonged Tom Van Allen, the man that Danny once was. A loving husband whose wife was killed when they innocently stumbled into a drug-house rip off to ask for directions, Danny has vowed to track down his wife’s killers. He has become a police informer, playing cat and mouse with two unsympathetic Los Angeles detectives. He is even pursued by his mother-in-law, who offers him peace through Jesus. But Danny is on his own crusade of revenge.
Danny’s focus is getting to the source of the drugs to ultimately find the people responsible for his wife’s death. The local Mr. Big is a Methedrine “cook,” good ole boy and all around sociopath named Pooh Bear (Vincent D’Onofrio); so named after the A.A. Milne character because instead of getting his nose caught in a honey pot he has quite literally lost it, or so the legend goes, to over-consumption of his own product. Pooh lives out in the region of the Salton Sea, a briny lake in the Southern California desert noted equally as a flyway for migratory birds as it is for the rotting fish on its shores. It is here that Danny must go to wreak his revenge. And Pooh is not someone to trifle with casually. An amorphous host at best, he would just as willingly offer you a taste of his scrambled eggs as he would feed your privates to a ravenous badger.
Plagued with a recent string of forgettable roles (in this humble chair-filler’s opinion) Val Kilmer, an excessively handsome, modestly talented actor has finally landed a role that suits his screen presence and his commendable willingness to take risks. His Tom/Danny character of a revenge motivated, heartsick musician-cum tweaker/vigilante is at least believable because of the sympathy he squeezes from us for the efficacy of his revenge. Kilmer should have borrowed a smidgen of Danny's boldness and lent his professional weight to this film by adding his own name to the list of producers. (Kudos to Eriq La Salle, et al). This worthy project should have fared better at the box office.
Vincent D’Onofrio, the Martin Balsam of our generation, keeps surprising us with the quality of his work. Like Balsam before him, D’Onofrio has carved out a comfortable niche in American film. With a greater range than his fellow character actors on the premium list (and here I’m thinking of John C. Reilly, Tom Sizemore and Forrest Whitaker, just to skim off some cream) D’Onofrio is able to assume the personas of a psychotic army recruit, a bug from outer space, Abbie Hoffman or even a television police detective with a seamlessness that far exceed the talents of his contemporaries.
Though not as intricately crafted nor as notably ensemble-cast as the classic of the revenge film genre, "Nevada Smith," nevertheless, "The Salton Sea," though often predicable, is most noteworth as a film whose parts comprise a greater worth than its whole. Director D.J. Caruso and writer Tony Gayton have presented us an enjoyable quasi-black comedy about the poignancy of revenge, and the strength of love. Though with a recognizable peripheral cast of faces whose characters could have used a little more fleshing out, the two have nonetheless given us our money’s worth. And Thomas Newman’s musical score is to die for.