The Salton Sea review

:. Director: D.J. Caruso
:. Starring: Val Kilmer, Vincent D'Onofrio
:. Running Time: 2:00
:. Year: 2002
:. Country: USA

Striking the imagination with its beautiful desolation, the Salton Sea is the perfect setting to echo the mood of Val Kilmer's character in this haunting neo-noir film soaked in black humor.

Val Kilmer is Danny Parker, a punk-rock speed freak who is also working as an informant for two detectives. When he is not helping them in drug busts, he gets high, trying to forget the scars of a past he keeps locked up in a small suitcase containing a nice shirt, a pair of shoes, a trumpet and a picture of a woman. When Tom plays the trumpet, he becomes someone else, a decent man named Tom Van Allen that he seems to have turned the page on. But has he really?

The Salton Sea is a gorgeously crafted neo-noir that develops its own cinematic language. The picture blends dark and poetic visuals with the usual ingredients of film noir along with a strong dose of humor. With the story and direction always on the edge it is difficult to determine where the movie is headed from the beginning. Just when you thought The Salton Sea was another Trainspotting/Requiem for a Dream, it takes an unexpected turn that makes you reconsider everything you've just seen. Suddenly it's clear that The Salton Sea is not ripping off these films but assimilating them as pop culture icons in the same way Pulp Fiction assimilated earlier films. Jarmusch and Wenders are close by, and that certainly makes you expect a wild ride. And it is.

In addition to the intricate story and atmosphere, the picture offers a gallery of colorful characters, from the noseless psycho drug-dealer Pooh Bear (Vincent D'Onofrio) to an Asian cow-boy along with his slowwitted best friend and the usual suspects as thug Quincey (Luis Guzmán) and drug-addict Colette (Deborah Unger.) The sense of humor, sometimes as shockingly brutal as the use of violence, delivers some very creative moments such as the recreation of the Kennedy assassination using pigeons. The gun dealer's "Salesman of the Week" speech is also particularly hilarious and reserves a surprising Dirty Harry twist.

In his first directorial effort for the big screen, D.J. Caruso demonstrates impressive dexterity at mixing the genres while staying true to the screenplay. He updates film noir with a modern approach but never loses control of the story's core. Combined with a moody soundtrack-from Miles Davis to Moby and the Chemical Brothers—and stunning cinematography (use of shadows, blue backgrounds and saturated colors), some scenes evolve into works of art that are an allegory to Tom's soul.

Downtown L.A. and the Salton Sea (a toxic lake near Palm Springs) give a great sense of what could be hell and provide no escape for the characters. They are always under the thumb of their surroundings, LA's underground life being as hostile as the desert's desolated areas (without mentioning the wretchedness of Riverside County!).

Val Kilmer embodies perfectly a tortured soul in one of his strongest performances. His moody approach is in sync with the atmosphere of the film and he carries it along while a succession of colorful supporting actors provide the fun. Vincent d'Onofrio is the most charismatic in an enjoyable and sometime over-the-top representation of an excessive character. Peter Sarsgaard is amusing as best friend Jimmy the Finn while Luis Guzmán and Deborah Unger lend their trademark grit to the film.

This is obviously not the first film to take on L.A.'s underbelly. But contrary to latest attempts such as the below B-film Shadow Hours and Wim Wender's failed Million Dollar Hotel, The Salton Sea doesn't just rely on the visuals. It never loses its sense of self-derision, and thus avoids going for cheap thrills. It also gives a realistic look at the Southern California meth labs and culture and pokes fun at this world without either "glamoralizing" the use of drugs or giving the audience a lecture.

Daring and original, The Salton Sea is an intense piece that reaches far beyond the limits of its genre.

  Fred Thom

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