The movies have their fair share of anti-heroes. A couple of my favorites include Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver and Leonard Shelby in Memento. These two men come from dark backgrounds where everything isn’t sunshine and roses. If they were characters in most any other movie, they’d be the bad guy because their logic and actions don’t fit the happy Hollywood norm. Enter a new fallen hero, Thom Van Allen. Or is it Danny Parker? He doesn’t even know. Regardless, he’s played by Val Kilmer in D.J. Caruso’s hip and slick drug trip of a movie, The Salton Sea. Although the film has a nifty visual style and a return-to-cool performance by Kilmer, the overall voyage on The Salton Sea is an uneasy one hampered by a confusing story that admits out loud it doesn’t know where it’s going.
Thom was a suave trumpet player who lived the artist’s life. But Thom is dead. Or at least his persona is. Enter Danny Parker, a tattooed speed freak who lives a perpetual 24-hour party. But partying can get expensive fast. So you need to make some cash. Danny’s a likeable guy with a nice haircut so he becomes the choice to go make some cash. They say do what you know and since Danny knows drugs, he tries to swing a deal with Pooh Bear (Vincent D’Onofrio), a noseless psycho of a meth producer. But is Danny also playing the other side, acting as a rat for the cops? He thinks he might be, but Danny’s not sure. Whatever he’s got himself into though has got him into trouble as gangsters and good guys are coming after from all sides. So much for the likeable personality and nice haircut theory.
As Danny tries to survive, he also embarks on a personal journey to figure out who he is, what happened to him and where the heck that grim reaper tattoo on his back came from. Okay, so maybe he didn’t wonder out loud about the tattoo, but I’m sure he was thinking it. I’d be thinking it if I sobered up one afternoon and saw that my back had transformed into the belly of Death, himself. Whatever the purpose, whether visual or symbolic, the tattoos are just one reminder of Memento, a similar film with similar themes. Danny is very much like Leonard Shelby but Danny has his short-term memory. It’s the long-term that’s he’s lost on. Central to both films is the search for self. It’s not easy to find when you’re surrounded by strange people who have long since forgotten to scrape their Jiminy Cricket from the bottom of their shoes. Yet, the journey is an important one, which is why I guess it’s told so many times. Some tellings are just better than others. Taxi Driver gave it a political edge and had Robert de Niro giving himself a mohawk and talking in a mirror. But it’s another piece of modern noir that The Salton Sea resembles.
This film has the feel and look of something very original, but I’m afraid that’s not the case. The similarities it shares with Memento are too striking to miss, especially given their close release dates. Themes, mise-en-scene, characters, they’re all very close. However Memento had that brilliant gimmick of telling the story backwards that complimented Leonard’s memory condition perfectly. The Salton Sea has no such gimmick to separate it from the pack. Instead director Caruso looks to the eccentric. This works on the surface as characters like Pooh Bear give a little comic relief and an excuse to watch the ever-delightful D’Onofrio again. But the eccentric can only distract for so long before they become obvious. So enter the snazzy visuals.
The frenetic music video look includes some night shot time lapse photography, a distinctive colour pallet and several poetic and symbolically charged shots. Kudos to Caruso and cinematographer Amir M. Mokri for giving The Salton Sea a distinct look, but once you’ve got the style figured out you come to the fact that there isn’t much of a story going on.
The many distractions provide a pleasant detour around the fact that the movie is lost. Danny has some troubles figuring out who he is, but as a viewer I couldn’t decipher who neither he, nor his personas were. The plot is all over the place seemingly searching more for another tricky camera shot rather than solving the problem at hand. Double crosses and plot twists galore, The Salton Sea gets messy even with the final minutes given away within seconds of the opening credits ending. It’s a case of knowing where it’s going, but like a new city, getting there is a struggle.
The Salton Sea is interesting to watch, putting an emphasis on the word watch. By getting myself wrapped up in the visuals and surface eccentricities of many of the characters, I found myself lost and confused when it came time to get to the heart of the movie. The fact that I wanted to figure it out does show that all is not a waste, but given it’s self-important attitude, the follow through is something of a letdown.
The Salton Sea Gallery