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.
There are a few films Kevin Costner has done in which he has really been allowed and been willing to test the boundaries of what is usually expected from him in a role. 3,000 Miles To Graceland and Eastwood’s A Perfect World are fine examples. Perhaps the finest though is Mr. Brooks, a dark tale that showcases the actor in a terrifying turn and the last type of role you would picture for him on paper. Opposites are paramount in acting and cinema as a whole, and it’s that type of contrarian casting choice that can lead to a performer’s finest hours. In this case it’s certainly one of Kevin’s best outings, and casts him in a frightening new light, or should I say dark. Here he is Earl Brooks, husband, father, businessman and all round stand up guy. Except fpr the fact that he moonlights as a methodical and psychopathic serial killer. He sees it as an affliction, and is almost ashamed of it, whether by a tiny flicker of a soul he may have, or simply by the standards impressed onto society. He’s efficient, cold and hopelessly addicted to the act of murder. His alter ego, or ‘dark passenger’ as the scholars say, is a cynical persona called Marshall, brought to life by a scary William Hurt. “Why do you fight it, Earl?” he drawls in that committed, laconic snarl that only Hurt can do. There’s shades of his character from Cronenberg’s A History Of Violence here, affirming my belief that Hurt is a pure acting prodigy and masterful of both the light and the dark within his craft. Earl has a daughter too (Danielle Panabaker) who he has worrisome thoughts about, and a picture perfect wife (Marg Helgenberger). One can’t keep the turbulent nightlife of the serial killer a secret for one’s entire life though, and pretty soon people start to catch on. A nosy Nelly (Dane Cook) catches a whiff of Earl’s crimes and lives to wish he hadn’t, and a keen Detective (Demi Moore) begins to piece the puzzle together as well. Earl is as clever as he is murderous though, covering his work and tying off loose ends with gut churning gusto. Costner carries the film terrifically, a man who is at once both uncomfortable in his own skin yet fits it like a glove when the camera dutifully bears witness to his killings. He’s like a tiger who really can’t change his stripes but wants to shield them from the judgment of others, and of course his own persecution. The scenes of murder are skin crawling in their frank, fly-on-the-wall nature, no slasher cinematics or gimmicky set ups here, just the icy horror of a predator extinguishing human life to sate the beast, and the nightmarish inevitability of death. Those scenes paint Earl in a horrific light, but the film doesn’t try to convince us he’s a monster using any usual methods, it just presents to us this man, his acts and his life surrounding them, without discernable condoning or condemning. It’s cold, it’s clinical and it’s one of the best serial killer flicks out there.