Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Val Kilmer, Vincent D'Onofrio, Adam Goldberg, Luis Guzman, Doug Hutchinson, Anthony LaPaglia, Glenn Plummer, Peter Sarsgaard, Deborah Kara Unger, Chandra West, B.D. Wong
Director: D.J. Caruso
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: See Review
Length: 103 Minutes
Release Date: September 10, 2002

“I know what you're thinking, but don't give up on me just yet. Just wait till I've told my whole story. And keep your eyes open. Nothing is as it seems.”

Film ****

There have been very few movies I have experienced that plunge you deep into a unrelentingly bizarre world, and I stress the word bizarre to the fullest extent. We've been down the road with proud-to-be lowlife characterizations in such movies as GoodFellas, Pulp Fiction, and even A Clockwork Orange, for that matter. Even though certain films have taken me to various creepy atmospheres, nothing could've have prepared me for the brutal audaciousness of The Salton Sea. This is an eye-gazing and hauntingly brilliant piece of film noir that truly takes you to an eccentric underworld that is crazy to a certain level, but the experience will had me wanting to re-enter that world.

There's no doubt that this film was another birth child of Pulp Fiction, a movie that since its release has spawned numerous so-called wannabes, some of which were actually good, but never managed to find its own distinctive quality. The Salton Sea is therefore a rare case, because even though I spot several plot inspirations from various movies, this film did an incredibly unique job of delivering its own distinctive feel. It's a mind-bending mixture of Memento and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, with a touch of Requiem For a Dream. And throughout the movie, you seriously have no idea where in the world you will be taken to next.

Val Kilmer, a much underrated actor, creates a remarkable performance in what his by far one of his greatest performances to date, ranking with his outstanding work in films such as The Doors and Tombstone. The opening of the film is tricky in the way it introduces Kilmer's character, as through a voice over we are told even he isn't sure of what his name is, or who he is anymore. Following a astounding sequence that tracks the history of speed right from the day it was conceived, we are then plunged into the world of this troubled soul, known as Danny Parker. Danny is associated with an underground group known as the “tweakers”, a slang term for speed freaks. Tweakers live for one thing only, which is the engaging of “the perpetual night party”, as Danny puts it. He, along with his two closest acquaintances, Kujo (Adam Goldberg) and Jimmy (Peter Sarsgaard), constantly feel the need to party endlessly and scoring huge quantities of blow, even if it means going out to buy some in the day time following a hot wired night.

But then it is revealed who Danny Parker really is. His real name is Tom Van Allen, who was previously a passionate jazz trumpet player with a beautiful wife, who was brutally murdered as the result of a sour drug deal. Tom has been hell bent on revenge ever since, and has become, under his alias, a drug informant for two cops named Morgan (Doug Hutchinson) and Garcetti (Anthony LaPaglia). It is clear that Tom is willing to go to critical extremes to avenge his wife's death, which has thus landed him in his current disposition. He has setup a deal with a notorious drug lord known as Pooh Bear, played in a high wire brilliance by a barely recognizable Vincent D'Onofrio. This is some character, as Pooh Bear acquires a prosthetic nose, which came as a result of the excessive cocaine abuse that destroyed his actual nose. The fake nose makes him look like Pooh Bear, which is why he dons the nickname.

The similarities between this character and Leonard Shelby in Memento are there, but since that film dealt with its plot in a different narrative fashion with many tricky twists to it, it would be extremely unfair to label The Salton Sea as a clone of the earlier movie. The concept of this character caught between two identities and two lifestyles, drug junkie and police informant, is unique in its own right, and had it not had a strong actor as Kilmer helming the role, the movie may have gone downhill as a result. We buy his character's ordeal throughout the movie, and we care for him very much.

Credit should also go to the supporting cast, which also includes Deborah Kara Unger as an abused neighbor of Tom's, whom with she develops a quiet and tender relationship with. Of all the supporting players, it's Vincent D'Onofrio who steals the show with his all out portrayal of a truly insane individual. His introduction scene is a hoot, as he restages the JFK assassination with pigeons in remote control cars and actual snipers ready to fire. There have been many insane characterizations, but D'Onofiro's ranks among the most original to date in terms of creepiness.

First time director D.J. Caruso has delivered a one of a kind movie experience, which I can honestly say is not for the faint hearted. As far as film noirs go, this is one of the best. Alive with a beautiful and haunting style, a terrifically woven plot, and superb acting headlined by Val Kilmer's outstanding performance, The Salton Sea is easily one of the year's truly best films.

Video ****

Warner has delivered one terrific transfer after another this year, but it's The Salton Sea that will, in my honest opinion, go down as the studio's best looking disc of the year. A film noir always carries with it a undying sense of style and WB's flawless video transfer does not falter this element for a single second, and does the film complete and absolute justice. The anamorphic presentation is alive for the whole 103 minutes, emerging an endless sharp and crisp image quality. Colors render extremely well in addition, varying perfectly in different scenes. A pure dynamite reference quality presentation.

Audio ***1/2

About 80% dialogue-driven, The Salton Sea does have its occasional jolts that result in the high points of this quite superb audio job. The 5.1 mix delivers in many areas, particularly that of background music. Several scenes involving some unsettling violence trigger some grand surround sound delivery, and numerous sequences, including one scene involving a mind-blowing visualization of a planned robbery, hit all the high marks in terms of channel pickup. A much impressive turnout.

Features **1/2

Not the most superior feat of extras you'll find, but I am much grateful to WB for not leaving this somewhat underrated film in the dark. Included are two very insightful documentaries; “Meth and Method”, which covers the production design of the film, and “Embracing the Chaos”, which features interviews with the cast and crew. Also featured is a trailer for the movie (one of the best ones I've seen lately), and cast & director highlights.


I only wished The Salton Sea had gone beyond the limited release run it was given, so that it would've probably gotten noticed. But thanks to this killer disc from WB, I can certainly advise all readers out there who cherish film noir and adventurous moviemaking to consider experiencing a memorable ride of a film.