The Salton Sea
by Del Harvey
Poignant, disturbing, spellbindging contemporary film noir.
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Val Kilmer is one of those people who can be very, very good or very, very bad, to my tastes, anyway. It must be something in his acting which triggers a response that is less than positive in me. And I don’t feel that I am alone in having this point of view. In truth, there is something about the guy which makes me want to like him. He can shine at times, such as his performance as Doc Holliday in Tombstone (“I’m your huckleberry”), or as Elvis in True Romance, or the hunter John Patterson in The Ghost and the Darkness. Fortunately, in The Salton Sea we are given one of Kilmer’s rare, excellent performances as a man tormented by his past and afloat in a sea of despair.
As The Salton Sea opens, we see Danny Parker (Kilmer), a trumpet player, sitting on a bed next to a travel bag full of money. It’s a ramshackle boarding house which is burning down all around him, but he doesn’t seem to notice as he sits there, quietly playing his trumpet. He speaks in voice-over, describing his feelings of desolation and his remorse for what he has become. Soon his questions open up to reveal the story that has brought him to this point in his life, and the recent past is revealed in cinematic flashback style. After witnessing the murder of his wife (Chandra West), Parker avows himself to revenge, taking on a new persona and sinking into a seamy underworld in order to get closer to the masked gunmen who caused her death. Along the way he befriends a slacker named Jimmy the Fin (Peter Sarsgaard—Boys Don’t Cry) and becomes involved in rescuing his neighbor Colette (Debra Kara Unger—The Game) from her own demons. Danny is constantly harrassed by undercover narcotics agents (Anthony Lapaglia—Lantana, and Doug Hutchison—The Green Mile) and a sadistic dealer named Pooh Bear (Vincent D’Onfronio—The Cell).
The Salton Sea is capably directed by D.J. Caruso (TV’s The Shield, and episodes of Dark Angel and Martial Law), who very adroitly guides us through the many layers of deception and half-truths inborn to the story. Screenwriter Tony Gayton (Murder by Numbers) has devised a complex but thoroughly entertaining story which enthralls while distressing.
Look for some great performers in terrific supporting bits, including Luis Guzman, B.D. Wong, Danny Trejo, Adam Goldberg, Shirley Knight, Shalom Harlow, and Meat Loaf.
Playing in limited run at the time of this writing, The Salton Sea is a mystery worth watching. If you can only find it on video or cable, take the time to watch it. It’s a tale as darkly poignant as you’ve ever seen, and a true contemporary film noir.
Del Harvey is a writer and the founder of FM. He lives in Southern California. He is a devout Bears fan, and recently taught screenwriting at Columbia College for giggles.
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