Dominic Sena’s Kalifornia is a brilliantly vicious dark fable, a moody cautionary tale regarding the dangers of trust, the true nature of the sociopath and the ironic way in which demons sneak up on us while we are to busy looking for them with our backs turned. It’s also damn fine thriller filmmaking and fits nicely into a subgenre which I happen to be an avid fan of: the American road movie. The highways, byways and back roads of desolate rural USA have a bitter menace that clouds the air like the desert dust kicked up by many a vehicle on their way through. There’s endless possibility out there, for great and terrible evil, in a place where help is always a county away and opportunity looms on the horizon like the bloated California sun. From The Hitcher, to U Turn, to Thelma & Louise, to Duel and everything in between, it’s a setting that hums with cinematic potential. David Duchovney and Michelle Forbes play a yuppie couple who unwittingly wander into the path of extreme danger. Duchovney is a writer who is working on a book about American serial killers. Their journey takes them to many bloodstained locales where incidents took place. Eventually they decide to carpool with rugged redneck Earley Grayce (Brad Pitt), and his bimbo girlfriend Adele Corners (Juliette Lewis) whose IQ appears to be lower than the cut of her blouse. The two couples couldn’t be more different, yet get on well enough. Slowly it becomes clear that there’s something very off about Earley though, noticed keenly by Forbes’s intuition. Duchovney is enamored by the tumbleweed hick, and thinks he’s made a friend. He’s half right, and not even in the way he thinks. The film takes its time letting Earley’s true nature emerge, Pitt slowly detaches and unravels until the tarp is fully torn off and we see the sociopathic monster within. All set in abandoned clusters of former Americana and given slick, almost action movie direction from Sena, it’s not one to miss for any fan of a crackling psychological thriller.
Things We Lost In The Fire takes an unblinking look at addiction, recovery, redemption, grief and the ways in which various people cope with all of the above. It shirks the dramatic stereotypes and instead shoots for realism, or at the very least, an unpredictable narrative within a genre that often follows rigid blueprints. It also contains two exceptional performances from Halle Berry and Benicio Del Toro. Berry plays Audrey Burke, mourning the loss of her husband Brian (David Duchovny could write a textbook on understated acting that cuts deep) to a really unfortunate accident. The last minute arrival of his longtime best friend Jerry Sunborne (Benicio Del Toro) adds a new element to the family’s grieving process. Jerry is an ex lawyer who is now addicted to heroin. Brian stood by him for many years, never judging or intervening but simply being there to spend time with, and look out for his friend. Duchovny appears in multiple flashbacks with both Berry, Del Toro and his two remarkable children (Micah Berry and Alexis Llewellyn) that instil a lingering presence that not so much casts a shadow over everything, but brightens and flavours it with memories. Audrey is unspeakably lonely and devastated, and despite the fact that she despised Jerry and what he represented for years, invites him to live in their garage, in flat out pure desperate instinct, and probably in an attempt to be closer to Brian after he’s gone, by bringing what was close to him closer to her. Jerry is great with the kids, supportive and wants to change, even accepting employment assistance from their kindly neighbour (excellent John Carroll Lynch). The demons do their best to pull him back though, as is their purpose, and a rift forms as we begin to see that Audrey has not fully accepted Brian’s death and is in the throes of miserable confusion. Director Susanne Bier uses many intimate close ups of eyes, hair, smiles and frowns to bring us into the mindset of her characters, a tactic which works wonders here and keeps minds and hearts of her audience glued to the proceedings. Berry is dynamite, pure and simple. The finest acting moment I’ve ever seen from her comes deep from the gut and late in the third act, an agonizing moment in which she has a splintering realization that her husband is gone for good, that final, resolute place that sinks in and grabs hold which we’ve all heard about from family members or news stories in which loss of loved ones has played a part. I don’t know if Berry has experienced this for herself in her own personal life, but she sure damn well embodies it here with every ragged sob, and it cast her in an entirely new light for me. Del Toro is Brando-esque, a shambling, unshaven pit of insecurity and inner turmoil, giving Jerry the mutilated soul he deserves without ever dipping in self pity, given the phoenix treatment and rising from the ashes of his longtime affliction simply by being exposed to Audrey and the kids. One would think that the relationship between Audrey and Jerry might end up going into romantic territory, but Bier and company is more interested in the road less travelled, showing us a story which unravels in a way that’s much more akin to believability. Between her directorial skills, Berry and Del Toro’s virtuoso work, this is not one to miss.