Salton Sea (2002) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

There were times when I liked this film a lot, and there are times when I though it was lost in a maelstrom of modernism - a swirling miasma of directorial flourishes and tone shifts and exaggerated characterizations like those than hallmark the hip young directors. It's an ugly and unclean film, and I mean that in a good sense.



The film begins with a man (Val Kilmer), shot in the gut, playing a trumpet in a burning building, as if resigned to die in the fire. This point is also the ending of the film. The trumpet player narrates us back to the present, wondering how he ever got there, because he's not sure who he is. No, it's not a Memento thing, not a literal lack of identity, but rather the lament of a man who has been hiding inside other identities for so long that he doesn't know how to look inside all the poses to see which elements are real.

It is almost impossible to reveal much more about the plot, because it is one of those with several layers which need to be pulled off before the real motivations are revealed. Is Kilmer a strung-out speed-freak rat being used by some crooked cops? Is he working with the police internal affairs people to catch the cops? Or is he some king of avenging angel, concerned only with on his own personal agenda? The script pulls of the layers cleverly, so that the revelations make sense, yet are not really expected. The plot is probably less important than the mood and characterizations. The real question about Kilmer is to what degree he has become the things he pretends to be.

Kilmer is like a white trash Hamlet, feigning a descent into madness to catch some murderers, haunted not by his father's ghost, but by his wife's. Like Hamlet, he's not always sure how sane he is, and neither are we. We simply don't know if he can tell a hawk from a handsaw. Are the friends he made in his life as a meth-freak rat his real friends? Or don't they count because he wasn't being himself? How does he feel about this issue? Will he take a bullet for one of these "friends"? Will they for him? Things get confusing. The pose he assumes runs much deeper than that of an undercover cop, because the policeman is always bound by the rules and regs about what he can and can't do. Can a cop shoot H to maintain his cover? Can he kill a bystander? The police have their rules, and society has rules for them. But Kilmer is not a cop. He's not out to achieve his goals by pretending to be a speed freak. He will achieve his goals by actually becoming one. And he has the unique courage of someone who doesn't care whether he dies.

I thought that the tone shifts could be effective, but also disconcerting. Like Tarantino, this director uses wild exaggeration for both humorous and dramatic impact, so that the most threatening characters and situations can be simultaneously funny and terrifying. The most grotesque of the baddies is Pooh-bear (Vince D'Onofrio), a redneck with no nose who tests a new man by placing the novice's penis in a cage with a starving badger. One time a guy cheated him out of $11, so he put the guy's head in a vise and cut his skull off with a hacksaw. Since the guy was trying to cheat the most evil man on the planet, he couldn't have had any need for his brains, so Pooh-bear cut them out, and threw them in the freezer. He pulls a piece out once in a while for a snack.

I think that gives you the idea. Imagine the dark, unremitting ugliness of Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet, throw in some Memento, some Requiem for a Dream, some Hannibal, and a generous side-order of Tarantino, and you get the overall picture. Slapstick sadistic humor, larger-than-life villains, ugly people using drugs in a slow form of suicide, exaggerated violence, a tangled plot, wild flights of directing fancy. It can be tense and unclean. It can be funny and unclean. Mostly, it is always unclean.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • widescreen anamorphic, 1.85

  • there are some interviews and a brief featurette, but no full-length commentary

Sadly, the director had to tack on a minute or two of additional footage at the end to give the film a warmer, gentler ending. The movie already had a perfect ending when the guy seemed to die playing his trumpet in the fire. That's the way it was supposed to end. I suggest you turn the film off at exactly that point, and skip the tacked-on scene.

  • Is the film brilliant? Often, yes.
  • Does it have great moments? Yes.
  • If I knew what it was when I popped it in the DVD player, would I have watched it? No.

And now I'm going to take a shower.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: three stars. Ebert 3/4, Berardinelli 3/4, 4/5

The People Vote ...

  • with their dollars: a complete flop at the box. It grossed only $676,000, recouping almost nothing from its 18 million dollar budget.


IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is C. Plenty of offbeat assets - some bizarre characterizations and humor, and some tensely grim flourishes. It has moments you'll remember. Overall, it's brilliant in its own way, but really ugly and sadistic and demented and unpleasant, trapped somewhere between a tarantine and a parody of a tarantine. I didn't enjoy much of it, but it created some emotional highs in the telling, and left some images in the aftermath.

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