The Salton Sea
2002, R, 103 min. Directed by D.J. Caruso. Starring Louis Guzman, Deborah Kara Unger, Doug Hutchison, Anthony Lapaglia, Peter Sarsgaard, Vincent D'Onofrio, Val Kilmer.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., June 28, 2002
The first of two new films about the extremely seedy underworld of the methamphetamine addict to hit theatres this summer (the other is Spun), The Salton Sea is a grimy, hallucinatory bad trip of a film, relentlessly downbeat and cloying, and very well made. It captures the paranoid subculture of the Southern California tweakers who spend their days and nights and days and nights, et cetera snorting bathtub crank and endlessly jabbering on about nothing. Thieves and junkies to a one, they'd make the perfect house cleaners if only they could tear themselves away from scrubbing that one shiny baseboard with that toothbrush. Kilmer, sporting some truly bad inkwork and a serious case of bedhead for a man who never sleeps, plays Danny Parker, who may or may not be a narc for the Man. In-between setting up and shutting down the various wandering freak shows around him, he searches for the masked men who murdered his wife in another life -- his pre-speed life, where he was a Chet Baker-esque trumpeter minus the tattoos and drugs. Things begin to coalesce for Danny even as they begin to fall apart. Local dealer/cook Pooh Bear (D'Onofrio) -- a one-man psychotic episode sporting a plastic nose where his real one (a victim to his hideous crank habit) was, is brought in to set up a quarter-of-a-million-dollar deal. Pooh Bear, his voice squashed by lack of nostrils, is the kind of movie maniac who uses starving badgers to extract confessions of guilt from his close personal friends. D'Onofrio, all but unrecognizable minus his schnozz, is a hoot, albeit a very nasty one. Danny wangles his way into Pooh's inner circle, and there, finally, he discovers the identity of his true love's assassins. Caruso, who comes to film from commercials, has a keen eye for replicating the jittery world of the speed addict -- his camera zips around the scenes, stopping just long enough to take in a fraction of what's going on, before drifting off. (One terrific throwaway has a pair of higher-than-the-sun crankettes arguing over an immaculate sock drawer: “We can do it better,” one of them says.) Hallucinatory, yes, but Caruso's film is also self-conscious in a way the greatest drug film of the past decade -- Drugstore Cowboy -- never was. It's crowded and crazed, and it has much of the same druggy seeker's vibe as last year's Memento. Deborah Kara Unger, as Danny's battered next-door-neighbor, is almost thoroughly wasted here (or maybe not -- expecting a deep romantic subtext from a film about tweakers may very well be a presumption on my part), but most of the supporting cast is onscreen only to make things that much more creepy. That said, The Salton Sea, for all its faults, is a solid piece of dirty work. It got intentionally lost in the shuffle of new releases. It deserves more than that, like its grungy protagonist, who frankly never gets much release at all.