Starring: Val Kilmer, Vincent D’Onofrio, Adam Goldberg, Luis Guzmán, Anthony LaPaglia, Peter Sarsgaard
Director: D.J. Caruso
I’ve never heard of director, D.J. Caruso. I’m often weary of people who use initials as their name. You don’t catch me calling myself G.D.. Actually, it sounds pretty cool. From now on, or certainly for the duration of this review, you can call me G.D.
D.J. is no beginner but “The Salton Sea” could probably be his most ambitious and well known project. The panned “Taking Lives” in 2004 was his other big-screen effort but his TV movies “Black Cat Run” (Jake Busey, Patrick Muldoon) and “Mind Prey” (Luis Guzmán) were reasonably well received. The reason I build up all this is because Caruso has quite simply directed one of the stand-out movies of the last few years. You know me (good old G.D.), I’m moderately impressed by plenty but much impressed by little.
The movie opens up with a trumpet-playing character (Kilmer – “The Ghost and the Darkness”, “The Doors”, “Batman Forever”) about to be engulfed by fire in a burning building, telling us that he’s a bit of a bad guy but urging us to listen to his story first before we judge him. He is Danny Thomas, a drifter who spends his days and nights doing speed with the likes of Kujo (Goldberg – “A Beautiful Mind”, “Saving Private Ryan”, Eddie in TVs “Friends”) and his best friend, Jimmy the Finn (Sarsgaard – “K-19”, “Boys Don’t Cry”, “Garden State”). To beat a felony rap, he snitches dealers out to police officers, Garcetti (LaPaglia – “Lantana”, “So I Married an Axe Murderer”) and Morgan (Hutchinson – “The Green Mile”, “I Am Sam”, “Batman & Robin”, “Con Air”). They treat him like crap and refuse to protect him when it turns out that a dealer he put away has put a contract out on him.
But behind the tattoos and the drug abuse, Danny seems a nice lad. He shows concern for his new neighbour, Collette (Deborah Kara Unger – “White Noise”, “The Hurricane”, “The Game”), who is being beaten by her abusive boyfriend (the ever brilliant Luis Guzmán – “Magnolia”, “Traffic”, “Boogie Nights”, “Punch-Drunk Love”). He also shows reluctant regret when he sees the distraught wife of a dealer he has shopped (Glenn Plummer – “Speed”, “The Day After Tomorrow”), even though she was abused by him. But Danny’s background is not one of crime and cruelty. He is reflective and mourns the loss of the love of his life, haunted by the thought that he could have done something to save her.
With Garcetti and Morgan no longer protecting him, Danny decides that he has to make some money and ‘go away’. He tries to set up a deal as a middle-man to buy from ruthless drug-baron Pooh-Bear (D’Onofrio – “Ed Wood”, “The Player”, “JFK”, “Full Metal Jacket”, “Malcolm X”) but his buyer (B.D. Wong – “Executive Decision”, “The Substitute 2”, “Jurassic Park”) is moving the goalposts and irritating Pooh-Bear. His life is seemingly falling apart but Danny is determined to get through it and try to find out who he is exactly. He warns you at the start – nothing is as it seems.
There are so many elements to “The Salton Sea” that elevate it right up there in to my all time top ten. I rented this originally because my top man, Anthony LaPaglia, was in it. And while he plays his police officer role with his usual, entertaining intensity (although it’s quite a shock to find that he doesn’t like dolphins), the quirky characters that pop up throughout are one of the main drivers.
The movie is set apart during moments like when dealer, Bobby, whacked out of his head on meths, starts aiming a spear gun at Danny and Jimmy asking them if they brought the ‘plastic men’ and then introducing himself as ‘the ocean’. Surreal characters like Pooh-Bear who has no nose, hasn’t slept in a year and recreates the Kennedy assassination using pigeons in a remote-control car or Asian cowboy, Bubba, who likes to call Danny ‘Hoss’, bring a unique slant to the film.
There are numerous laugh-out-loud moments like when Danny comes-to and wonders to himself if he has died. The first thing he spots is linoleum – “This must be hell”. When foul-mouthed Quincy (Guzmán), who is in the middle of aggressively banging down Collette’s door, asks him what he’s looking at, Danny casually replies “I was just admiring your boots. Did you purchase them locally?”.
And there are twists and turns along the way. Not all of them are completely logical or likely, but as plot devices they work perfectly and there is not that much suspension of belief required.
As I say the characters are terrific, backed by a sharp script (Tony Gayton – “Murder by Numbers”) and some spot-on direction from Caruso. Stylish close-ups, slow-motion and occasionally abstract scenes make this seem like it came straight out of Tarantino’s hot period in the early-mid nineties.
Thankfully no mistakes were made in casting, and while the cast is quite well known there are no names here for the sake of it. Kilmer is not someone I’ve ever warmed to on the screen but he’s outstanding as Danny whether he is being humorous or overwrought. D’Onofrio is just about the MVP, putting on about 50lbs for his role as mega-psycho dealer, Pooh-Bear. His appearance, the “nose” back story and his hilarious and ill-fitting accent make him one of cinema’s weirdest characters in a long time. Plummer is brilliant in his small role as Bobby, Guzmán is class as usual and Unger, who I only recalled from 1992s “Whispers in the Dark”, does a more than solid job.
“The Salton Sea” is a top-notch movie which inexplicably seemed to disappear off the radar, only having a limited release and picking up just one Prism award for best actor (Kilmer). G.D. don’t fawn over too many films but this is one that gets just about everything right.