DJ Caruso’s The Salton Sea

DJ Caruso’s The Salton Sea is a brilliant piece of filmmaking, a fascinating hybrid between go-for-broke, tweaked out drug cinema, bloody, violent crime revenge thriller and moody, jazz soaked neo-noir, with a central performance from a committed Val Kilmer that goes waist deep in all three. I would say that it was ahead of its time and for that reason didn’t quite fully find its audience, but upon years of reflection I think it’s just such a specific piece that one has to be tuned in just right, and invest enough attention to appreciate it, the first time anyways. Kilmer is washed out meth head snitch Danny Parker, playing both sides of the narcotics game in hazy LA. Or is he trumpet player Tom Van Allen, haunted by past tragedy? The first half of the film sees him awash in an endless cycle of drug fuelled debauchery, stuck in a tireless set of hijinks with his tweaked out ‘friends’ (Adam Goldberg, Peter Saarsgard and more), and habitually snitching out dealers to two very corrupt cops (Doug Hutchison and Anthony Lapaglia, both royally sleazy). The second half shows us why, what dark passage of events led him to the lifestyle and the cursed trajectory he finds himself on in the final act. Kilmer is a restless fallen angel in the role, a man with secrets that the film respects by taking its time unfolding and not revealing too much too soon (avoid any trailers). His Danny even begs the audience to stick around, promising us there’s more to his story than rampant substance abuse. The cast is thick with talent, including Danny Trejo, R. Lee Ermey, Chandra West, B.D. Wong, Shirley Knight, Luis Guzman, Meat Loaf, Deborah Kara Unger and a crazed, memorable Glenn Plummer. The scene stealer award has to go to thespian Vincent D’Onofrio though as one of the antagonists, a terrifying drug baron called Pooh Bear because he railed so much blow they had to cut off his nose and replace it with a disturbing prosthetic. His favourite pastimes include reenacting the Kennedy assassination with pigeons and an air rifle, smoking crack to yodel music CD’s and setting a rabid badger called ‘Captain Striving’ loose on the genitals of disloyal employees. The film finds a demented dark humour in him and many other characters, but the other side of that coin is the emotional turbulence and tragic resonance to Kilmer’s arc, two conflicting energies that seem to somehow coexist beautifully. The score by Thomas Newton is noirish and sad, with strains that sound almost like heavenly choirs too, giving the city of angels a half lit, otherworldly quality. The title is important; the Salton Sea represents three key elements to the film. The incident that spurs Kilmer down the rabbit hole takes place right near the picturesque titular place, but it also represents both the sea of excess and scum that Danny basks in, and the ocean of anguish, regret and sadness that engulfs Tom. A brilliant piece.

-Nate Hill

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