I like films with strong characters. I like quirky characters. I like offbeat humor. I enjoy dark films. The Salton Sea contains all of these elements, but failed to capture my imagination. I think the primary reason that The Salton Sea irritated me was the ridiculous exaggeration. It also felt like the movie didn't know exactly what it wants to be. Is it suspense? Is it a dark comedy? Is it trying to be like Pulp Fiction? Is it a character study? I still don't know exactly how to categorize this film, other than to put it in the "not good" category
The Salton Sea was not without redeeming qualities. The film certainly had strong characters and some interesting twists. The problem is that the characters were overdone and the twists were simply not believable. There were so many flaws in the premise of the story that I simply could not buy into it. When a film fails to convince me with even a shred of credibility, then it is hard for it to win me over simply by presenting interesting characters or unexpected twists.
Tom Van Allen (Val Kilmer) AKA Danny Parker is a "tweaker." As the narrator of his own story he introduces us to the history of methamphetamine back to its origins in Japan. After a short history lesson, we are provided a glimpse into a "chill house" where a decent sized group of drug addicts are engaged in a three (or was it four) day binge. When it is time to re-up, Parker and his friend Jimmy (Peter Sarsgaard) visit a local supplier named Bobby (Glenn Plummer). After a tense negotiation, the duo leave (or would that be escape?) with their dope.
We quickly learn that Parker is playing both sides. After heading back to the chill house, Parker disappears to a phone booth where he contacts his handlers. Parker is a police informant. Gus Morgan (Doug Hutchinson) and Al Garcetti (Anthony LaPaglia) show up in an unmarked car and exchange information with Parker. After taking care of the tip, Parker meets with his handlers again and is advised to leave town. Parker is told that his snitch card is full and his charges will be dismissed. Some Colombians seem to be gunning for Parker and he is advised to leave town. Parker still has some unfinished business, so he sets up a final deal with an edgy dealer named Pooh Bear (Vincent D'onofrio). From that point forward, the motives and underlying plot themes begin to reveal themselves in a series of twists and turns that keeps everyone guessing.
The Salton Sea as pure fiction isn't bad. The characters are well developed, the dialogue intense, the street language fairly accurate and the twists unexpected. The story itself is tightly bound, suspenseful and intriguing. However, the story lacks an ounce of credibility. At the beginning of the film (during the narration) we are introduced to a cook who manages to blow up his trailer...a very accurate and all-too-common incident that requires a very expensive (and dangerous) Hazmat response to clean things up. At that point, I was thinking the film was well researched.
Immediately following that scene we are taken inside a chill house where a variety of over-the-top characters are engaged in mundane activities while under the influence of their drug of choice, methamphetamine. The portrayals of these characters was ridiculous. The exaggeration and portrayal was laughable, and not in a good way. As we are introduced to the plot, we find that Parker is an informant and interacts with drug dealers and police under a variety of circumstances. There were too many problems with those interactions to mention but I will cover a few.
Bobby the dealer was off the hook when Parker arrives. I understand the dramatic effect of the scene, but it was way too much. Plus, Bobby is a major dealer. He has pounds. He does not appear to have runners or go-betweens, he is using heavily himself (unlikely for someone moving that kind of weight) and has paranoia that would make it impossible for him to ever be successful. Who is going to continue buying from someone that shoots harpoon spears at them? The interaction with Pooh-Bear had the same qualities. There are ways to find out if someone might be the police, but not the ways Pooh-Bear operates. How has this guy managed to stay in business? There are certain market influences that determine a persons success in a supply and demand business, and that includes the drug trade. People at the top of the food chain employ methods to survive. Pooh Bear would not last long. The interaction with the police was pretty extreme, as well. Law enforcement officials let $250,000 "walk" in this film. No way, Jose. Even the set-up scenario for "the big deal." Those environments would be strictly controlled. The glaring issues just could not be overcome on the strength of the characters.
I have liked Val Kilmer in some films, but have never really thought he was spectacular. This film does little to change that for me. Although he is a decent actor, Kilmer just doesn't seem to engage me with his performances. Sarsgaard's character was borderline. In a film filled with exaggeration, his character was understated. He did okay in the role but still never managed to make me like him. And his character was one that should be liked. B.D. Wong makes an appearance as an Asian cowboy fed...another character that was intended to be eccentric but just seemed unbelievable. Wong did okay portraying the part, but the role just wasn't well developed. The cast did not have a lot to work with due to the caricature-like roles.
The Salton Sea was rated R for all the right reasons. The film is gratuitous on every level. Although drug use is one of the prevailing themes, it is way overdone. Although violence is pervasive, it is over-the-top. From annihilation by automatic weapons to point-blank executions, the film is rife with blood sometimes simply for shock value. Some of the visual aspects of the violence are portrayed through suggestion sending equally unsavory messages. There was not much in the way of adult themes or sexuality, which was actually a failure of this film. It would have been nice to see the relationship (which is an underlying theme) more fully explored. Language, drinking and intense action are other elements to consider for younger viewers. I would limit exposure to this film to at least a teen audience.
The Salton Sea was a complete mess to me. The film seemed to lack an identity, borrowing bits and bobs from other films. The exaggeration was obviously intentional but stripped the film of any attempt at credibility. The situations the film sets up further erode the believability leaving viewers with the sense that they are watching fantasy. Fantasy was the one thing this film was not trying to be. Although edgy and unique, this film made me feel embarrassed for (Director) D.J. Caruso. What was he thinking? I would not recommend The Salton Sea. 4/10.