Salton Sea

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A very black and complicated comedy about a Dark Knight deep in muck

Jun 14, 2008 (Updated Jul 29, 2008)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Vincent D'Onofrio horrorshow performance, Peter Sarsgaard's twinkie, Amir Mokri's cinematography

Cons:overactive script, too little use of the Salton Sea

The Bottom Line: Extreme violence warning


The Salton Sea is a very saline, extremely polluted body of water north of the Imperial Valley in inland southern California. It is man-made, if inadvertent -- filled in 1905 by waters breaching dikes on the Colorado River. It has not dried up because used irrigation water flows into it. Water in the desert looks inviting to migrating birds, but the salinity levels make the survival of fish in the lake precarious and there are regular botulism epidemics that result in massive fish and bird casualties. (I recommend an informative and entertaining 2006 documentary, Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea -- and checking out the place during the winter (only!).)

The Salton Sea seems a good metaphor for movies about corruption. It is a backdrop in the 2002 neo-noir vengeance movie directed by D. J. Caruso (Disturbia) -- though a "Salton Sea" tattoo on the back of its protagonist played by Val Kilmer seems to have as much screen time as the inland sea.

The movie's plot is very complicated. (Is a double-cross of a double cross a quadruple cross or a triple cross? That is, is betrayal additive or multiplicative?) Nearly anything written about the story qualifies as "plot-spoiling," and even writing much about the characters also is.

A solid generalization is that pretty much nothing is what it appears to be -- with the exception of corruption and drug addiction.

The movie begins with Val Kilmer sitting against a wall playing a trumpet surrounded by flames. He wonders aloud (to the camera) is he is Danny Parker or Tom Van Allen. Noirs and neo-noirs frequently use voice-over narrations, sometimes from characters who are dead recalling how they got to be dead, sometimes from dying characters (and sometimes from survivors).

There are flashbacks within flashbacks, though the main two flashback story lines are presented relatively linearly (though intercut). The more recent one begins with Danny and Jimmy the Finn (a particularly open-faced Peter Sarsgaard) amidst a wasted group that has been tweaking for days. They go out to buy more crank, not knowing whether it is noon or midnight. The black dealer to whom they go (Glenn Plummer) is far more wasted on his product than the buyers. And... things devolve.

I have difficulty suspending disbelief in what happened in the deepest level of flashback (I think I can say that it turned Tom Van Allen into Danny Parker without giving anything seriously away.) And I am perplexed about the source of some money, too.

There are two (arguably three) revenge story arcs about which I am not going to reveal anything. Instead, I will say that there are some intense portrayals of (mostly damned) characters. As Pooh-Bear, Vincent D'Onofrio is extremely menacing (as is his pet badger -- you never heard of anyone having a pet badger? Well, with any luck, you'll never met anyone like Pooh-Bear!). Peter Sarsgaard is excellent as a character desperate to be liked (and possibly in love with Danny -- at least devoted to him). B.D. Wong has an entertaing change-of-pace role as an FBI field commander. In a cameo Shirley Knight makes an impression. Doug Hutchinson and Anthony LaPaglia play ruthless vice squad copes, the latter a particularly sadistic one. Deborah Unger makes something of what might easily be a standard abused woman character. And Adam Goldberg provides comic relief as a tweaker planning a heist (what is to be heisted I won't reveal).

Luis Guzmán is, alas, wasted. I'm not sure what I think of Val Kilmer's performance -- or performances. D'Onofrio is the one who is way over the top, licensed (by the script) to chew up scenery. Kilmer must have been tempted to be histrionic, but resisted the temptation and plays an amateur Philip Marlowe -- given the complexity of the plot, The Big Sleep seems an influence on the proceedings herein, though rather than the irony of Chandler's tales of southern California corruption, "The Salton Sea" is in the line of graphic violence mixed with black humor of Quentin Tarrantino.

The plots center on drug dealers and the interdiction of drugs. I can't imagine anyone finding the portrayal of the consumers of metamphetamine "glamorous" or "glamorized." They are terminally whacked out, even beyond those in "Requiem for a Dream." Not least in an early capsule history of metamphetamine use, "The Salton Sea" contains elements of "Reefer Madness" for a new millennium and for a genuinely addictive drug. (The laughs in "The Salton Sea" were intended, unlike those in "Reefer Madness," however.)

The DVD includes a trailer and two featurettes. The more interesting of the two is "Meth and Method" in which Tom Southwell's shows and explains how the production design bolstered characterization. "Embracing the Chaos," a bit longer than M&M is fairly standard director and cast members praising each other, though Caruso's intent to have the rigid preplanning of shots of Alfred Hitchcock as a base on which actors could improvise lines interested me.

The cinematography by Amir Mokri (Lord or War, Joy Luck Club) cinematography is excellent. I wouldn't say that I "liked" the movie. There were parts that made me laugh, parts that made me smile, parts that made me cringe, and at least one plot twist that pleased me. The DVD bonus features pushed my 3.5-star rating up.

© 2008, Stephen O. Murray


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