The imagery of The Salton Sea surpasses standard noir. It's a tale of a desolate man lost in an abyss of emotional turmoil, desperately seeking redemption and revenge against unknown assailants. The film's opening shot of Val Kilmer, sitting on a barren floor surrounded by flames as he pours Miles Davis through his trumpet, delivers both the physical heat of the flames and the fiery, emotional pain of loss locked within his eyes. It's a haunting and eerily tragic moment of humanity displayed at its weakest point of existence.
The story of The Salton Sea is constructed as an updated version of a 1940s noir film. Expertly written by Tony Gayton, the film opens up with a brief history of speed, a crash course complete with 1950s housewives and Japanese kamikaze pilots. Then, the camera quickly navigates through a crazed house party and lands next to a heavily tattooed Kilmer, sitting amongst speed freaks on a four-day binge. Or maybe it's been three days. With a strong voiceover delivered by Kilmer, we learn about the double life he leads. One life is an addict and police informant known as Danny Parker, complete with numerous tats, leather pants, and skull rings on every finger. And another one, locked in his closet, is a trumpeter named Tom Van Allen, whose wife ended up dead years ago at the hands of masked men during a rest stop robbery while vacationing at the Salton Sea.
At first, the film drifts in and out of the Danny Parker/Tom Van Allen lives - both confusing and perplexing the audience. The film intersects the crazy all-night parties, including the brilliant work of two fine actors, Adam Goldberg and Peter Sarsgaard. Along the way, two corrupt cops Morgan (Doug Hutchinson) and Garcetti (Anthony LaPaglia) descend upon Danny Parker. It's a bit Trainspotting, a bit Memento.
Director D.J. Caruso masterfully weaves a pitch-black journey into the heart of a broken man and the fires that have almost burned him completely, inside and out. Using time-lapse camera work, multiple lens filters, and muted grays and blacks, Caruso constructs sharp illustrations of both worlds in the film.
But the greatest surprise lies in the performance of Val Kilmer. Stuck in a slew of sub-par films since donning the Bat Cape, including The Island of Dr. Moreau and Red Planet, Kilmer delivers one of his finest performances in years as the tormented and brooding hero. Kilmer expertly slides from one persona to the next and in and out of dream states, coolly handling the dark, difficult scenes with shades of Brando and De Niro.
The Salton Sea is a dark, morbid tale full of ignorant souls and bad men bent on destruction of both self and the world around them. I fault only the quaint Hollywood ending and the ease with which Kilmer's character is to acclimate to the speed cycles of dealers, dopers, and party buds. Despite its minor script flaws, the film stands as one of the best of the season.
The DVD includes a few extras, a documentary on production design and another standard making-of story. Read our interview (see right). It's better.
Sits with a fist.