- The Washington Times - Friday, May 17, 2002

"The Salton Sea," a stylishly convoluted and sinister revenge melodrama, is almost certain to achieve a cult-classic status of imponderable magnitude. Written by Tony Gayton and directed by D.J. Caruso, both relative newcomers, the movie may endear itself to connoisseurs of the hard-boiled and outrageous within a matter of minutes.
While introducing Val Kilmer as a confessional narrator and lower-depths man of mystery known as Danny Parker and then Tom Van Allen, the filmmakers combine inflammatory, sardonic and rhetorical motifs with hilarious impudence and finesse.
A number of their scabrous brainstorms will remain toppers for some time to come, beginning with a few sweeping generalizations about the mind-set of Japan during World War II and extending to a demented re-enactment of the John F. Kennedy assassination among criminal scum who use pigeons in a miniature car to simulate the authentic calamity.
Although Warner Bros. doesn't seem at all confident about how to promote the movie at this stage it's been on and off the Warner calendar, and I have yet to see a press kit, suggesting that the expense of printing one is considered a bad investment Mr. Gayton's screenplay must have been a sensation when it landed on Hollywood desks.
I have no doubt that it will be the envy of thousands of aspiring young writers, in the same way that "Heathers" and "Pulp Fiction" and "The Usual Suspects" and "Memento" excited jealous admiration among people who also would like to create terminally hip crime fables.
Clever as they are, Mr. Gayton and Mr. Caruso cannot conceal threadbare elements of motivation and plot manipulation in "The Salton Sea" once the immediate strangeness of Mr. Kilmer's situation begins to wear off and the sarcastic, feverish idiom loses a bit of its initial wacky impact.
Moviegoers who don't relish depraved settings and characters would be well-advised to keep their distance because the norms of "Salton Sea" are brutally abnormal.
After setting the stage with an ominous prologue that deliberately echoes "Sunset Boulevard" in certain respects, the filmmakers sleepwalk us into a prolonged flashback that unfolds in a Southern California underworld of methadrine addicts and dealers, not to mention corrupt narcs.
Danny Parker is revealed to be some kind of police informant consorting with meth freaks, one of whom, Peter Sarsgaard as Jimmy the Finn, proves an endearingly loyal and courageous simpleton.
Disfigured by an enormous satanic tattoo on his back and pretending to blend with the genuine freaks, Parker is on a mission of redemption that purportedly demands an odyssey to the bottom.
His downfall began with an excursion to the Salton Sea, a salt lake and wildlife refuge in the desert, roughly 100 miles east of San Diego. Although it's something of a vacation resort, the filmmakers suggest that you take your life in your hands by traveling there because the wildlife consists of barbaric specimens of humanity.
The barbarian to trump them all is a loathsome meth dealer nicknamed Pooh Bear, impersonated with characteristic glee by Vincent D'Onofrio, whose monsters in "Men in Black" and "The Cell" look rather presentable when compared with the appalling Pooh.
Testing Danny's good faith while trying to promote a drug deal, Pooh threatens to expose the guest's loins to a ravenous pet badger. Pooh is that kind of criminal lowlife and the filmmakers are that kind of uninhibited teases.
The virtuoso strokes of mystification, satire and illustrative decadence ultimately are at the mercy of a plot that makes no sense unless, I suppose, one ascribes the entire movie to a drug-induced reverie of self-pity and retribution, and possibly a postmortem reverie at that.
It would be easier to respect the ambiguities if the filmmakers could decide on a particular identity for their protagonist rather than clinging to contradictory alternatives.
At the same time, it's difficult to resist many aspects of their comic and stylistic assurance. The movie looks as eerily striking as "The Cell" and brings off some stunning effects, notably hallucinatory images of a setting sun and an oversize moon and a flashback that materializes off an impromptu "screen," the surface of a peeling wall in a dilapidated rooming house.
"The Salton Sea" clearly is the handiwork of talented fellows, even if their methods of having a good time tilt toward the ruthless and degrading.
If there were a way of formulating the pretext for authentic pathos, in the vein of "Who'll Stop the Rain" or "Seven," Mr. Gayton and Mr. Caruso failed to pick up the scent.
As a result, Mr. Kilmer lacks a plausible tragic dimension while stalking his demons. Obviously, it's an enhancement the film desires and for which it keeps groping.
However, as a cleverly shocking eye-opener and attention-getter, "The Salton Sea" definitely is a ripe one in the eye. Incidentally, I'll consider that press kit a collector's item if and when Warner Bros. gets around to sending it along.

***
TITLE: "The Salton Sea"
RATING: R (Sustained ominous atmosphere and depraved context; frequent profanity, graphic violence and simulations of drug use, with methadrine as the preferred narcotic; occasional sexual candor and intimations of physical torture)
CREDITS: Directed by D.J. Caruso
RUNNING TIME: 103 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: 4 STARS


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