...if you try to be too many things to too many people, you wind up pleasing no one.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

This film pretty much died at the box office, and once you've seen it, you'll probably agree it's not hard to tell why. No, it's not because the film is bad. On the contrary, "The Salton Sea" has a lot going for it. I believe the movie failed because it simply has too many bizarre things going on in it, most of them finally turning against it. As I've said about other films, if you try to be too many things to too many people, you wind up pleasing no one.

So, what is "The Salton Sea"? Maybe I should say, what does it try to be. It's a modern, would-be noirish look at the L.A. drug scene. It's a violent revenge flick. It's an eccentrically humorous character study. It's a post "Pulp Fiction" crime drama. It's an inadvertent buddy picture. It's an inside-out mystery in the style of "Memento" and "Mulholland Drive." And it's a traditional Hollywood thriller with a traditional Hollywood ending. Any one of these things would have made a decent film, but their combination adds up only to a good try. OK, give director D.J. Caruso (whose films were mostly made for TV until this one) high marks for at least trying to do things differently, something most filmmakers wouldn't even dare consider. Of course, earning less than $1,000,000 in box office receipts on an $18,000,000 film (IMDb) is one of the reasons most directors don't try to be too different. One can hope that some of the film's financial losses will be recouped in video and TV revenues.

The movie boasts an impressive cast that do their best to make the affair as engrossing as possible. The star is Val Kilmer, who is alone worth buying the disc. He begins the picture with a voice-over narration as he sits calmly playing his trumpet while about to be consumed by the flames of a burning building. That in itself is weird enough. "My name is Tom Van Allen," he tells us, "or Danny Parker. I honestly don't know anymore. You can avenging angel, Judas Iscariot, loving husband, prodigal son, Prince of Denmark...trumpet player, speed freak." Then he concludes his opening monologue with the most telling remark of all: "Keep your eyes open. Nothing is as it appears." Indeed.

Danny (or Tom) tells his story in flashback, starting about a year earlier with his drug indulgences. He's a full-time speed freak, meth user, and we get maybe twenty or thirty minutes of really ugly people doing really ugly things with drugs. Ah, but what we also find out early on is that Kilmer's character is really a drug informant, working closely with two police detectives, Morgan and Garcetti (Doug Hutchison and Anthony LaPaglia), to bring down a number of the city's biggest dealers. Unfortunately, this gets Danny in trouble with a dealer he can't bring down, Domingo, who vows to find him and kill him. Danny wants to do one more big deal on his own, without the police, score some big money, and leave town forever. But things are never easy.

In the course of events, Danny runs into all sorts of strange and colorful characters. Chief among them is Pooh-Bear (Vincent D'Onofrio), a villain with no nose. He's a dealer who has snorted so much powder he's had to have his whole nose removed and wears a plastic prosthetic in its place. Pooh-Bear's nasal condition leaves him with an occasional shrill squeak when he talks, and his idea of fun is to reenact the Kennedy assassination using a remote-controlled model car and live pigeons. Freaky yet memorable stuff. Further weirdness: a group of Danny's druggie friends talk of making big money by stealing one of Bob Hope's stool samples and selling it on E-Bay.

Across the hall from Danny lives Colette (Deborah Kara Unger), who because her boyfriend, Quincy (Luis Guzman), beats her, tries to take comfort in Danny's arms. Then there's Danny's late wife, murdered in a bloody drug raid; and Danny's best friend, Jimmy the Finn (Peter Sarsgaard), the nearest thing to a decent human being in the picture; and just about every tough-looking character actor in Hollywood, including Danny Trejo and even Meat Loaf.

Besides Kilmer's performance, I enjoyed the film's surprises, and there are plenty of them. Be prepared to believe Danny when he tells you "Nothing is as it appears." But, overall, I found the film dismal and depressing, a noir gone wild. The colors are intentionally dim, and they're complemented by a load of high-tech visuals-- unusual camera angles, numerous close-ups, fast forwards, time lapse shots, mirror shots, etc. While it's all happening, it's entertaining enough, but when it's finished (in a disappointingly conventional manner), it doesn't seem to have been about very much. The contrasts are perhaps too many and the story line too far-fetched to take either seriously or humorously. The movie is caught in a Never Land of reality and fantasy from which it never fully emerges. Worse, it's a case of a fine performance by Kilmer going to waste on a character we're never fully able to know or care about. In the last analysis, one remembers "The Salton Sea" as simply a grotesque motion picture about murder, drugs, and mayhem, and, of course, it is more than that. But impressions are often more important than actualities. Tough break for "The Salton Sea."

Appropriate to a film noir, most of the movie is shot in dimly lit rooms or at night, producing a deep, dark picture quality in purposefully dull, drab colors. It sets a realistic tone, even if the action itself can't quite rise above the melodramatic. Image delineation is average; facial tones are bit on the heavy, dusky side; and there are some observable halo effects around objects from time to time. More in its favor, the picture is fairly clean, offering little grain and few jittery lines. The whole presentation is done up in a 1.74:1 ratio, enhanced for widescreen televisions.

The sonics are provided via Dolby Digital 5.1, and they are more than adequate for the job, though unspectacular. Loud, pounding rock and soft, gentle jazz are rendered equally listenable, even if the dynamic range, frequency response, and stereo spread are only moderate. The surround channels take care of minor musical ambience and sporadic raindrops. There's really nothing special about the sound or how it's employed except to say it's quiet and it does its job efficiently.

There are not a lot of bonus materials on the disc. Perhaps Warner Brothers figured they had already spent enough dough on the movie; I don't know. The two main extras are brief featurettes. The first, called "Embracing the Chaos," lasts about ten minutes and discusses through cast and crew interviews the use of improvisation in the film. The second featurette is called "Meth and Method," about eight minutes devoted to production and set design. Then there are cast listings, twenty-nine scene selections, and a widescreen theatrical trailer. The spoken languages provided are English and French; the subtitles English, French, and Spanish.

Parting Shots:
For the first thirty minutes or so of "The Salton Sea," I hated the thing. Its look, its story, its actions, its people were ugly and detestable, with little or no redeeming value that I could see. Then, as the story began to shape up and twist and turn, and as new characters were introduced, the movie took on a new life. It began to develop a world of its own, with its own bizarre set of rules, into which I found myself being drawn. "The Salton Sea" never fully recovers from its dismal beginning, and it ends in a place I had hoped it wouldn't go, but in between there may be enough fascinating material to warrant a look. Just don't bring the kids into the room with you; this is definitely not a family picture.


Film Value