The first scene of The Salton Sea, a terrific, twisty thriller from Warner Bros., feels almost cozy. A man with a trumpet sits on the floor, leaning against the wall, his face and horn lit by the flames of a toasty, roaring fire. Then it hits you-there's no fireplace; it's the room itself that's burning. Weirder yet, piles of money lie all around, curling and turning to ash, along with a driver's license and a photograph of a beautiful woman. We hear the man in voice-over: "My name is Tom Van Allen, or Danny Parker. I honestly don't know anymore-maybe you can help me. As you can see, I don't have much time." Silhouetted against the leaping flames, he brings the horn to his lips and blows a long, bluesy riff.
In the flashback scenes that follow, we see the man (superbly played by VA Kilmer) as punked-out, tattooed Danny Parker, small-time dealer and serious dabbler in the potent synthetic amphetamine called crystal meth. Although The Salton Sea opens on a soulful note-literally, with a Miles Davis tune--director D. J. Caruso and scriptwriter Tony Gayton tap a rich vein of shock comedy by anchoring their mystery in the underworld of Southern California "tweakers," or speed freaks. They wink at the moralists in the audience with a brief, hilarious history of such amphetamine users as World War 11 kamikaze pilots, overachieving '5Os housewives, and JFK with his famous "energy shots." In the movie's bravura party scenes, tweakers prove to be every bit as industrious as their more respectable forebears, operating in a state of self-induced obsessive-compulsive disorder, full of demented purpose. These scenes play like a hallucinatory send-up of our workaholic, entrepreneurial culture-two young women sit cross-legged on a
sofa, excitedly organizing a sock drawer, while one of Parker's more ambitious cronies concocts an elaborate plan to steal Bob Hope's stool sample and auction it on eBay.
The Salton Sea weaves the low finks and playful cinematography of Trainspotting into a story that's almost as ingenious as Memento's. Like that movie, it's essentially a film noir, graced by a darkly romantic hero and simmering with danger. Violence haunts even the funniest scenes, giving them a wild, fearsome edge. And you can't help thinking that if Parker's fellow tweakers ever got straight for five minutes, they would see immediately that he isn't one of them. It's not just that he's older and more sophisticated. He's a man on a mission that has nothing to do with drugs; he's obsessed with avenging the past. He's also unreadable-even stoned to the gills, he gives away nothing. In Kilmer's subtly layered performance, Parker resembles one of those Russian matryoshka dolls. At its center is a lover with a knife in his heart.
In the sleek film noir of the 1940s, style trumped savagery; these are rougher, or maybe just more candid, times, and savagery prevails. Parker kills a lot of people in The Salton Sea, but who could blame him, given the movie's hit parade of villains? Chief among these is the psychotic, bleached-blond drug lord known as Pooh Bear. Vincent D'Onofrio's portrayal of this uniquely weird creature is some of the best work he's ever done, a finely judged mix of the terrifying and the familiar, utterly monstrous yet fully human. When Parker penetrates his desert lair, the sense of escalating menace and unmitigated evil is overwhelming. Like its hero, The Salton Sea keeps you guessing to the very end, but perhaps the smartest thing about this clever movie is the way it locates the roots of film noir in a much older, more innocent kind of romance. Over the course of his noble if bloody quest, Kilmer's brokenhearted knight in tarnished armor attracts an unlikely Sancho Panza in Peter Sarsgaard's sweet-natured druggie, tries valiantly to save a sorrowful battered woman (Deborah Kara Unger), and must confront a beast as terrible as any in Arthurian legend or movie history. The Salton Sea occasionally slips into studio-style glibness, but it takes you places few thrillers ever go.
ELLE Magazine, April 2002