Movie Review: The Salton Sea

I wanted to see The Salton Sea the moment I saw its intriguing trailer on Apple’s Quicktime site, but it seemingly spent only about five minutes in theaters here in Columbus, Ohio before it disappeared. I think the studio figured it had tax write-off marked all over it, and didn’t bother to do much to promote this one.

Which is a real shame, because this is a good movie with a great cast, keen writing, an excellent score, and stylish, smart direction.

The Salton Sea stars Val Kilmer as a widowed jazz trumpet player who adopts the persona of death punker Danny Parker in an undercover attempt to discover his wife’s murderers in the seedy world of methamphetamine addicts and dealers.

Kilmer’s acting here is some of the best work he’s ever done. I hope we’ll be seeing him in more and better roles from now on.

Vincent D’Onofrio turns in another of his trademark wonderful performances as Pooh-Bear, a methamphetamine cook who snorted so much crank that his nose rotted off. Pooh-Bear is a redneck surfer dude psycho, ridiculous and frightening in the same scene. D’Onofrio went to great lengths to prepare for the role, gaining 45 pounds and getting a bad farmer tan and bleaching his hair. The director reported that he didn’t even recognize D’Onofrio when he showed up for the first day of rehearsals.

D’Onofrio’s part is comparatively small, but his scenes are riveting. When we are introduced to Pooh-Bear’s character, he’s directing a home movie recreating the Kennedy assassination — with pigeons strapped into a remote-controlled toy jeep and his buddies with rifles. That scene was some of the blackest comedy I’ve seen in a while.

Another amazing scene is when Parker comes by to do a drug deal. Pooh-Bear, suspecting Parker’s an informant, tries to torture the truth out of him. I won’t go into details, but Pooh-Bear’s unique brand of “encouragement” involves Parker’s pink bits and a very angry, starving badger.

A big surprise for me was the director, D.J. Caruso. His name wasn’t familiar to me, but The Salton Sea is so expertly directed I figured he’d done lots of other features. Not so — up ’til now, he’s mainly done made-for-TV movies. This is a young director I hope we’ll be seeing more of. He apparently made an effort to combine the best of the script and the best improvisation his actors could offer — he would evidently film certain scenes in radically different ways to see what worked best.

While his technique is perhaps debatable, his results are brilliant. The movie constantly surprises you. The first part of the film — which details Parker’s wry observations on the world of the tweaker — leads you to believe that this is going to be a darkly comic Trainspotting with meth addicts. But it gets darker and darker, and suddenly it’s squarely in film noir territory.
This was one of the best films I saw in 2003.

If you enjoyed films like the original Get Carter and The Limey, this should be just your speed.

Movie Information

Rating: R
Running Time: 103 minutes
Director: C.J. Caruso
Writer: Tony Gayton
Score: Thomas Newman

Val Kilmer: Danny Parker / Tom Van Allen
Vincent D’Onofrio: Pooh-Bear
Adam Goldberg: Kujo
Luis Guzman: Quincy
Doug Hutchison: Gus Morgan
Anthony LaPaglia: Al Garcetti
Glenn Plummer: Bobby
Peter Sarsgaard: Jimmy the Finn
Deborah Kara Unger: Colette
Chandra West: Liz
B.D. Wong: Bubba
R. Lee Ermey: Verne Plummer
Meat Loaf Aday: Bo

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