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'Salton Sea, The'

'The Salton Sea' delves into the seedy lives of L.A. crank dealers

Friday, July 05, 2002

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The so-called Salton Sea is actually a salt lake -- 226 feet below sea level -- in southern California. With no outlets, water is removed from it only by evaporation, which gives it a salinity level 25 percent greater than the Pacific Ocean.

 
 
'The Salton Sea'

RATING: R for strong violence, drug use, language and sexuality

PLAYERS: Val Kilmer, Vincent D'Onofrio, Deborah Kara Unger, Chandra West

DIRECTOR: D. J. Caruso

WEB SITE: saltonseamovie.com

CRITIC'S CALL:

   
 

But these days, what distinguishes it more than its salinity level is its crystal methamphetamine level: The Salton Sea area is the speed-production capital of California, a hellish mecca for the Los Angeles "tweakers" who go there to make, buy, sell, snort and shoot up the drug -- and often to get shot up in other ways.

"Salton Sea," a crime thriller of drug-underworld deceit, gives us Val Kilmer as unlikely hero Danny Parker, a gentle jazz trumpeter-turned-tweaker. His beautiful, beloved girlfriend got fatally caught in the drug web, and now he's tangled up in it himself, wallowing in all-night revels, trapped between the worst of two lousy worlds. As an undercover "rat," he has been informing on other tweakers. But when his undercover cop-handlers cut him loose and throw him back to the wolves, he hatches a scheme to serve as middle-man in a huge last-hurrah crank deal.

The Mr. Big he must deal with for that is pudgy Pooh-Bear (Vincent D'Onofrio), so named for the fact that he had his nose in the honey jar so long, it fell off -- the nose, not the jar. He now wears a plastic Halloween nose to cover the hideous hole in his face, and he'll kill you quick as look at you if he thinks you're crossing him. He'll do it in a uniquely sadistic way (squeezing your brains out in a vise or attaching a badger to your genitals, for instance). Pooh-Bear is nothing if not creative.

So is the screenplay by Tony Gayton ("Murder by Numbers"), a diabolically clever maze of plot twists and gradual revelations parceled out at precisely measured intervals.

First-time feature director D. J. Caruso executes those twists masterfully, but that is only one of his achievements. Equally adept is his rendering of the whole seedy universe in which these low-lifes operate -- and the bizarre, wildly varying personalities of the low-lifes themselves. Says the narrator:

"You swear divine allegiance to each other" during the nightly crank orgies, "but when you wake up the next day you wouldn't walk across the street to pee on 'em if their head was on fire."

Look for a perversely brilliant gun-salespitch scene (in the form of those $19.95 TV weedwacker products "not available in stores") that would do Charlton Heston and the NRA proud. A second, even more perverse highlight/lowlight is Pooh-Bear's re-enactment of the JFK assassination using a remote-controlled motorcade of live pigeons -- one wearing a pink pillbox hat.

Supporting actors Chandra West (the murdered girlfriend), Deborah Kara Unger (the abused woman-across-the-hall), Peter Sarsgaard (the hero's best friend) and B.D. Wong (the mysterious crystal-meth cowboy connection) are fine without exception.

Kilmer is downright excellent -- thoughtful, vulnerable, solid, deep, selectively ironic at just the right moments. If his powerful portrayals in "Tombstone" and "The Doors" didn't convince you, this one establishes him without a doubt as one of the best actors of his generation.

But the most stunning performance comes from D'Onofrio as the psychopathic Pooh-Bear. His is one of those mesmerizing, over-the-top tours de force such as Rod Steiger, Jack Nicholson or Harvey Keitel used to give. I predict it will earn D'Onofrio either an Oscar or a place in a mental institution, and perhaps both.

Caruso's masterful compressions of action and juxtapositions of time frame are complemented by uniformly keen production values, not least the downbeat music of Miles Davis and constant, ominous low ostinatos of composer Thomas Newman. Amir Mokri's cinematography is astonishingly artful -- a compelling kind of living "character" in itself.

This is an extremely polished film, extremely well acted. But Castle Rock Entertainment is reportedly having a tough sell on it. There's nothing warm or cuddly about "Salton Sea." It's rough, brutal going. If you dare, hike out to that gorgeous little refurbished Oaks Theater in Oakmont, the one and only place it's being screened -- but leave Aunt Thelmah and the kids at home.

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