by Walter Chaw
THE SALTON SEA (2002)
starring Val Kilmer, Vincent D'Onofrio, Doug Hutchison, Peter Sarsgaard
screenplay by Tony Gayton
directed by D.J. Caruso
The Salton Sea opens with a trumpeter-in-Hell kind of thing, sort of a Chet Baker in Drugstore Cowboy image where Danny Parker (Val Kilmer) plays a mournful Miles in a cool hat while bundles of cold cash burn like little pyres to the bluesman's lost ideals. We know there'll be a dame he shouldn't have trusted (Deborah Kara Unger, beaten up on screen yet again) and a gallery of rogues fervid in their multiplicity of deformities (Vincent D'Onofrio's redneck meth dealer Pooh is a classic villain: part Chandler, part Flannery O'Connor, part Joe Lansdale); we also know that our hero will have a good heart but be a victim of some tragic fall somewhere in his past. The requirements of the genre are just too well-defined to make the plot of much interest (and, sure enough, the plot isn't terribly interesting)--more interesting is the way Caruso hopes a good inch of quirk is enough to mask the essential emptiness of the whole endeavour, and how a nice simpering ending forgives all the sleaze that preceded it. Before it self-immolates, however, The Salton Sea plays a bit like Jesus' Son mashed into Naked Lunch, or at least like Burroughs's cameo in Drugstore Cowboy, all slurred speech, nifty hats, and affectation. The scenes that work in The Salton Sea are those involving D'Onofrio's dealer, a man fond of recreating JFK's last ride with pigeons and redneck assassins. (The symbolism of trussed pigeons being tossed to the wolves is not one that escapes me, but it's a fun scene anyhow.) Poor Danny Trejo gets another thankless cameo ending in his death, and Luis Guzmán struts his stuff as the latest guy to smack around glassy-eyed Unger on film. Mistaking casual violence for Tarantino cool and the slick-ification of sleaze as mod-pulp, The Salton Sea disappoints most in its self-delusion and dishonesty. But the picture does a good deal more than disappoint in its gloriously stupid epilogue; the bells and whistles of The Salton Sea are burdened with only a flaccid wrist and a reedy grasping gasp with which to ring and blow.