“Sometimes you can see the world so clearly.” And more often than not, when you’re thinking this sort of thing, you’re under the influence of serious drugs. Just so, when elaborately tattooed tweaker-snitch Danny Parker (Val Kilmer) is thinking it, in his voice-over for The Salton Sea, his view is decidedly skewed, by lack of sleep, thirst for vengeance, and all strains of methamphetamine.
The first scene of D.J. Caruso’s debut feature suggests that Danny’s look-back at his life has a certain urgency: he’s shot in the gut, unable to get himself out of his blazing apartment. This unpleasant circumstance, you eventually learn, results from a couple of Danny’s many betrayals and offenses. Being a junkie, informer, and liar doesn’t win you many friends. The only one he does have, an affable speedfreak named Jimmy the Finn (Peter Sarsgaard), is so puppy-doggedly devoted that he has Danny’s mohawked portrait tattooed on his arm. Not exactly a right-thinking guy.
Peppered by strange characters, assembled as a series of out-of-order flashbacks, Danny’s story is part noiry nightmare, part scam saga, and part junkie-underground travelogue. It opens just after Danny’s been shot in the gut and left to burn to death in his own apartment; a hefty stash of bills that he’s put together turns crispy, rising with the flames, an aestheticized corollary to his burning soul. He rhapsodizes a bit for your benefit: is he Judas Iscariot? The Prodigal Son? The Avenging Angel? He pretends to leave the choice to you, telling his tale so the choice will be an informed one. But he’s a liar, a loser, and a self-pitying fool too, so you need to keep that in mind. The camera pulls up and out, he plays a trumpet.
His tale begins, so he says, back when he was not Danny, but a professional trumpet player named Tom Van Allen, blissfully married to the ethereal Liz (Chandra West). He misses her something awful, you can tell, and eventually you find out why: in his former life, a couple of sleazebag drug-heisters shoot her in the head in front of him. She inexplicably stays alive (and unbloodied) long enough to give him an excruciatingly sweet goodbye smile, thus granting a motive for the bulk of the film’s action: Tom’s decision to become Danny, not only to immerse himself in the darkness of the L.A. methamphetamine scene, but also in an improbable, self-destructive vengeance scheme.
Danny’s perpetual speeding thus has an ostensibly dual purpose, to zap out the pain of his loss, and to lead him to the killers. While he’s not so righteous-minded or ingenious as the Fugitive or Schwarzenegger, he’s in the ballpark. Aside from assorted nut- and hard-cases, Danny also hooks up with a pair of dirty cops, Garcetti (Anthony LaPaglia) and Morgan (Doug Hutchison), to whom he delivers snitchy-tips on small time dealers and users. The cops, so deeply shadowy that they hardly need the artful lighting that seems to follow them everywhere, use the info in order to cut their own deals. When they’re bored or pissy, they taser and beat Danny; they hang around in dark alleys wearing leather jackets, pretending they’re tough. Danny’s relationship with them suggests his desperation, a point he articulates for you in his voice-over, in case you somehow miss the unmistakable imagery of same: he tends to hunch about in cluttered crankhead abodes, garbage-strewn rainy streets, neon-lit pool halls.
The film has style to burn, so to speak, and so Danny’s adventures come off as episodes, thematically and even narratively related (he is going to track down his quarry), but also discrete. His own self-measure is plainly perverse: the beatdowns inflicted on him, by crooks and cops alike, punctuate his sense of self, his need for punishment, and so appear to restore a moral-ish order to his riotous existence. He’s so undercover, so disoriented, that he’s lost track of his own identity: “I honestly don’t know anymore,” he sighs.
The problem is, it doesn’t much matter. Tony Gayton’s screenplay lays out these many moments of fleeting “clarity,” strung together with little coherence. Granted, this is a point in itself, but doesn’t help the film’s noiry clichés seem any fresher. By turns brutally outrageous and modishly too-cool-for-room, The Salton Sea is occasionally entertaining (a crew of villains restage the Kennedy assassination with pigeons in a remote-controlled car). Supporting characters are extreme, but still stock: the distressed damsel, Colette (Deborah Kara Unger), is bruisy-eyed and trembly-lipped, menaced by glowering bully-boyfriend Quincy (Luiz Guzman); Danny’s big-score buyer, Bubba (B.D. Wong), drawls, wears a cowboy hat and sunglasses, and appears mysteriously in his pickup truck whenever Danny seems to be needing to meet him.
Appearing in little bits of scenes, these characters seem like refugees from David Lynch’s universe (Dennis Hopper, keeping busy with Gap commercials and 24, is by now too understated a performer to fit in here). The more broadly drawn characters are, of course, the dealer-addicts. Consider Bobby Ocean (Glenn Plummer), who keeps his wife, still kicking and moaning, under his mattress. He imagines himself in the broadest terms: “I don’t mean to impose,” he rants, “but I am the ocean.” With that, he aims his spear gun at Danny and jittery Jimmy the Finn, who talk him down just long enough so they can make it out the front door with newly acquired stash in hand (this as several spears slam through the door near their heads). As bizarre as this fellow is plainly designed to appear, his subsequent suicide is disturbing (splat on the pavement below his apartment window), and Danny’s lack of response is even more so. Your point of identification is as creepy and psychotic as anyone he fears or fingers.
Most bizarre by far is Pooh Bear (Vincent D’Onofrio, who reportedly gained 40 pounds for the role, though it’s hard to see why), with whom Danny has to clinch a sale for Bubba. Pooh Bear is hyperbolically scary: not only has he literally blown away his nose with drugs (he wears a prosthetic, but one digital erasure scene provides the equivalent effect of Lt. Dan’s non-legs for the non-schnoz), but he has a hillbilly-ish accent and affect, meaning, he sticks out his big ol’ belly and goads Danny to make a wrong move, just so he can watch him squirm. And oh yes, he keeps a wild badger on hand to set loose on nemeses’ penises.
Arranged via standard junkie-movie hallucinatory wide-angles and saturated colors, The Salton Sea‘s many parts are more striking than their sum. By the time you reach the finale, you’re likely wondering why you’ve been watching all this strutting and posturing. Sometimes you can see the world so clearly. Most of the time, you can’t.