MGM // 1993 // 118 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // August 13th, 2010
A state of fear and terror.
"Tell me, big shot, how you gonna write a book about something you know nothing about?"
Brian Kessler (David Duchovny, The X-Files) is an aspiring writer who has done a great deal of research on the subject of serial killers. So far the only thing he's published is a four-page magazine article on the subject, but Brian has bigger aspirations. He's hoping to write a book detailing a series of famous murders committed by serial killers, with photographs of the locations provided by his girlfriend Carrie (Michelle Forbes, True Blood). They'll start in the Deep South and slowly work their way across the country until they reach California, where they hope to start a new life.
It's going to be an expensive trip, so Brian puts up an ad in the hopes of finding someone else headed west who wants to split the cost. The only couple to reply to the ad is Early (Brad Pitt, Meet Joe Black) and Adele (Juliette Lewis, From Dusk Till Dawn). Early and Adele are poor, trailer park folks who couldn't be more different from the well-educated, sophisticated Brian and Carrie. Even so, this unlikely foursome hops in Brian's convertible and hits the road. Unfortunately, Brian and Carrie aren't aware of the fact that Early is precisely the sort of killer they've spent so much time studying.
What happened to Dominic Sena? His directorial debut Kalifornia may fall short of being a masterpiece, but it's a tremendously involving film that demonstrates some very good directorial instincts. It's a complex, frightening little thriller with a thoughtful core. So why is it that Sena has only managed to produce rubbish like Gone in Sixty Seconds, Swordfish, and Whiteout in the years since? One of those strange cinematic oddities, I suppose. Even so, at least Sena will also have one film on his resume he can be proud of.
Kalifornia is one of a handful of films released in the early-to-mid-'90s that caused certain individuals to start throwing up their hands and decrying the senseless violence of Hollywood (films like True Romance, Natural Born Killers, and Pulp Fiction fell into this category). To be sure, the film is violent (nearly two decades later, it still hasn't lost much of its shock value), but the violence is neither glamorized nor sensationalistic. Like Michael Winterbottom's The Killer Inside Me, Kalifornia takes violent behavior to an extreme in order to accentuate its horrifying nature. It's doubtful that any of the moments of bloodletting are likely to inspire cheers or grins (though you never know; someone like Early may be watching).
The film is rooted in the idea that some people kill because they like killing and because they're evil. Forget all the psychological explanations, forget the traumatized childhoods, forget the bad social environments, forget the influence of television...Kalifornia says that sometimes it's just because certain people are bad to the core. The characters played by Duchovny and Forbes are into "dark, gritty" stuff (he has an obsession with grisly murders; she creates rather brutal photography "unsuitable for mass appeal"), but their interest come from a detached, intellectual place. Forced to confront the reality of these obsessions, they begin to understand the true terror of a serial killer's mind. I may be making the film sound a bit smug, but in reality it's a truthful and even compassionate portrait of these characters. They may be misguided; but the movie doesn't hate them for it.
The four principle actors are well-cast and play their roles effectively. Duchovny and Forbes both project intelligence in different ways, and Duchovny's earnest curiosity plays nicely against Forbes' cool cynicism. Forbes is particularly effective as the film progresses; she sees the B.S. for what it is well before things get nasty for all parties involved. However, the showier roles belong to Pitt and Lewis. Pitt's performance ranks as one of his strongest roles of the '90s; a cheerfully horrific turn rooted in sadistic violence. Pitt and Lewis both adopt voices that initially make them seem like redneck cartoons, but they so fully embody the characters that they feel convincing. Lewis' behavior makes more sense as the film proceeds, as we start to understand that her chipper persona is basically a mask for the deep-rooted hurt lying underneath.
Despite being given a near bare-bones release, Kalifornia lands on hi-def with a rather exceptional 1080p AVC-encoded 2.35:1 transfer. The image looks very natural, bearing no evidence of significant DNR tampering. The level of detail is quite strong for a film more than 15 years old, and blacks have considerable depth. Shadow delineation is excellent, too. There are individual moments that seem a bit soft, but in general I find the transfer pretty impressive. Audio is respectable, capturing the detailed sound design but not provide as well-distributed an experience as I would have hoped. Things tend to be pretty front-heavy most of the time, though Carter Burwell's moody score gets a solid mix. Dialogue is clean and clear throughout. The Blu-ray disc only includes the unrated version of the film and the theatrical trailer, while the bonus DVD is an old flipper disc containing both the theatrical and unrated versions of the film. I really hope someone is able to help MGM get back on stable ground sometime soon so they afford to do better work on their catalogue releases.
There are moments when the film pushes a little too hard in areas where it could have easily been a bit more subtle. This applies most strongly in terms of Duchovny's pointless narration, which turns up at the most inopportune times to allow Brian to ramble on about the lessons he's learned.
Still powerfully involving and well-crafted, Kalifornia is a brutal but worthwhile flick. The Blu-ray release looks good, but a rental might be advisable given the lack of supplements.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 118 Minutes
Release Year: 1993
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* DVD Copy