Warner Bros. // 2002 // 103 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // December 1st, 2003
If you're looking for the truth, you've come to the wrong place.
Written by Tony Gayton (Murder by Numbers) and directed by D.J. Caruso (Smallville, The Shield), The Salton Sea is a stylish and engaging modern noir.
Danny Parker (Val Kilmer, Tombstone) is a tweaker, a speed freak. He spends his days with other tweakers, doing loads of crystal meth, trying to numb the grief of the loss of his wife, murdered near the Salton Sea. Danny's a rat, too, working with two cops named Morgan and Garcetti (Doug Hutchison and Anthony LaPaglia) to bust dealers.
Danny's also a jazz musician named Tom Van Allen.
Things get interesting when our hero becomes the middleman in a $250,000 drug deal between an Asian cowboy named Bubba (B.D. Wong, Jurassic Park) and a dangerous, noseless meth cook called Pooh-Bear (Vincent D'Onofrio, Men in Black). When Morgan and Garcetti find out about the deal, they want to take Pooh-Bear down.
Is Danny just an aimless drug addict ruined by grief, or is he up to something?
The Salton Sea is noir in the picaresque/fever dream style exemplified by Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep. Danny Parker's life unfolds as a series of random interactions with a variety of grotesques, both funny and scary. His rhythms are dictated by the inevitable cycles of the hard-core drug addict: when not high, he's engaged in the hard and dangerous work of obtaining drugs; when in possession, he's high and consuming. As with Chandler's Philip Marlowe, Danny's quest brings him in contact with all levels of Los Angeles society: lowlifes, addicts, criminals, cops, and the middle-classes (in the form of his deeply concerned in-laws, played in cameos by Shirley Knight and R. Lee Ermey). Only when we're deep into the story do we realize that all the seemingly random details have meant something all along, that each scene is an integral part of a focused, steadily advancing plot.
Val Kilmer's an actor whose performances are often too good for the material he chooses. In The Salton Sea, his talents aren't wasted. Playing a drug addict/grieving widower would tempt most actors into all manner of histrionics, but Kilmer succeeds by playing Danny simple and earthy. In his hands, the character seems plagued by his own intelligence as much as by the trauma of his loss, as if the actor injected a little Hamlet into Danny. And Kilmer is aided by the strong performances around him. Vincent D'Onofrio is over-the-top in a good way; his take on whacked-out redneck Pooh-Bear -- a guy whose hobbies include re-enacting the Kennedy assassination with a remote controlled car -- is hilariously menacing. Real is the best word to describe Peter Sarsgaard's (Empire) turn as Jimmy the Finn, Danny's emotionally needy tweaker pal. The scenes between Sarsgaard and Kilmer, whether funny or poignant, play as entirely true and believable. In addition, Deborah Unger (The Game) and Luis Guzmán (Traffic) deliver the goods in small roles as an abused woman and her short-tempered gang-member boyfriend; and Adam Goldberg (Saving Private Ryan) is perfect as a tweaker named Kujo (his fantasy scheme to steal a Bob Hope stool sample from Cedar-Sinai and sell it on eBay is one of the funniest things I've seen on film in quite a while).
Amir Mokri's (Coyote Ugly) cinematography is dominated by warm, deeply saturated hues, and loads of shadows. It's beautiful work, perfect for a neo-noir. Warner's DVD reproduces Mokri's work with great clarity. The 1.85:1 anamorphically enhanced image is sharp, stable, and mastered from a print so clean you could eat off it. Audio is Dolby Digital 5.1, more than ample for the dialogue-heavy film. It does, however, make an immersive experience of the sparse, melancholy trumpet solo on Gil Evans' ethereal blues standard, "Saeta."
Extras include two brief featurettes, cast and crew listings, and a theatrical trailer. The first featurette, Embracing the Chaos, is just shy of 10 minutes in length and features interviews with Caruso, Val Kilmer, Vincent D'Onofrio, Peter Sarsgaard, and Doug Hutchison. The piece is focused on the director's and actors' attempt to bring a loose, improvisational, and realist approach to a formalist, plot-driven genre like noir. Meth and Method is an eight-minute piece focused on Tom Southwell's detailed production design. His goal was to create environments the actors would believe and that could, therefore, inspire and bolster their performances.
The Salton Sea is a visually beautiful neo-noir whose turns of plot surprise, and whose payoffs satisfy. On top of that, it's filled with excellent actors turning in strong performances.
While light on extras, this DVD presents the film in exemplary fashion. I recommend it.
All involved are acquitted.
Review content copyright © 2003 Dan Mancini; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 103 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Embracing the Chaos Featurette
* Meth and Method Featurette
* Cast and Crew