The Best Movie You Never Saw: The Salton Sea
Welcome to The Best Movie You NEVER Saw, a column dedicated to examining films that have flown under the radar or gained traction throughout the years, earning them a place as a cult classic or underrated gem that was either before it’s time and/or has aged like a fine wine.
This week we’ll be looking at D.J. Caruso’s THE SALTON SEA!
After the murder of his beloved wife, Danny Parker is set adrift in a world where nothing is as it seems. On his journey he befriends slacker Jimmy the Finn and becomes involved in rescuing his neighbor Colette from her own demons. Danny is antagonized by undercover narcotics agents and sadistic dealer Pooh-Bear
Written by Tony Gayton (MURDER BY NUMBERS, AMC’s Hell on Wheels) and directed by D.J. Caruso (DISTURBIA, EAGLE EYE, TAKING LIVES), THE SALTON SEA stars Val Kilmer, Vincent D’Onofrio, Peter Sarsgaard, Doug Hutchison, Adam Goldberg, Deborah Kara Unger, Luis Guzman, Anthony LaPaglia, Chandra West, BD Wong, R. Lee Ermey, Meat Loaf, Danny Trejo, and Glenn Plummer.
In trying to get his screenwriting career off the ground, Tony Gayton wrote THE SALTON SEA as a sample script, meant to get some attention more so than to actually be a product to sell. However, once it began to make the rounds the response was overwhelming; producers wanted to film the “sample.” The script eventually went to director D.J. Caruso, who was an up-and-comer looking for his first feature after spending some time on the small screen with Smallville and Dark Angel.
Upon reading the script, Val Kilmer was immediately taken by it and after meeting with Caruso, who had no qualms about taking on the veteran actor for the role, despite the rumors of his problematic behavior on set. Kilmer excitedly took the lead, investing himself heavily into the part, even coming up with the idea of having his character of Danny Parker/Tom Van Allen tattooed as a means of telling the story of his life (and second life).
The rest of the cast came together with Peter Sarsgaard as Danny’s best friend, Deborah Kara Unger as his troubled neighbor, Doug Hutchinson and Anthony LaPaglia as immoral undercover cops and Vincent D’Onofrio as the scene-stealing drug dealer, Pooh-Bear, who researched his role right down to the physical aspect of the erratic character missing his nose and the subsequent voice and nasal sounds that would be required to sell it.
The film was shot mostly in the L.A. area, as well as the actual Salton Sea area, and wrapped production in 2001. However, after the September 11 attacks, the film was delayed due to it’s dark nature and the studio was leery of the heavy use of drugs and a recreated JFK assassination scene with pigeons that it decided to release the film in limited theaters after it was decided the scenes would remain, obviously affecting the box office.
THE SALTON SEA opened on October 11, 2002 in just 15 theaters to middle-of-the-road reviews, currently sitting at 62 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. It garnered a paltry $764,554 worldwide take from an $18 million budget. The film has had a good run on home video, which has pushed up it’s street cred as a cult hit, which seems especially relevant of late after the massive success of AMC’s meth-addicted smash Breaking Bad.
"He [Gayton] said that he'd been sitting there with this look on his face for about a decade. Trying to get something sold. His wife finally said, ‘If you don't sell anything, you have to admit you are not this person. And I'm going to leave you.’ And he went off down next to the Salton Sea, and it was about twelve days and he'd had these experiences in Florida and everything's based on something. He was never this guy, he wasn't a speed freak or anything. But it just came out of this burst and this condition that he was in where you It's all about identity. It just feels like it comes – just have to do something – from somewhere so complete in that way." - Val Kilmer on screenwriter Tony Gayton
WHY IT’S GREAT:
THE SALTON SEA is one of my favorite movies to suggest to people who haven’t already seen it. In many ways it’s the quintessential best movie you never saw; limited release, shitty box office, awesome cast, excellent score, and a quirky style that simply doesn’t translate well to your average moviegoers. It’s almost better that the film had a limited release as there’s just no way this ever would’ve been a big moneymaker, but the fact that it exists is an awesome thing and one of the reasons that my faith in the craft of movies is still there.
Val Kilmer takes a lot of shit these days. He’s not in TOP GUN volleyball playing shape anymore and carries a rep of rumors and tabloid gunk that’s mostly unsubstantiated, leaving out the fact that he’s a terrific actor with a really surprising and varied resume. THE SALTON SEA is another link in the chain of Kilmer’s more compelling film roles and the actor slips into the dual identity role with ease, conveying the pain, sadness, vulnerability, hate, and confusion of a man on a mission of revenge.
"I think the romance and the love is the core of this entire piece. As crazy and absurd and as nutty as this whole thing gets, he's a man who lost the love of his life and he's trying to get himself back again. I think it's vital. It's the core of the piece." - DJ Caruso
Playing “tweaker” Danny Parker and musician Tom Van Allen, Kilmer has a bit of a FIGHT CLUB duality here, living a double life that finds him “playing the role” of a meth-addicted informant, while hiding the “real” version of himself, a simple man who saw his wife murdered in front of him and now seeks to find justice for it. Narrating the film with a smooth, yet hazy demeanor, like a man confessing his life to an audience, Kilmer embodies the character with a compassionate strength tempered with vulnerable pain, making for a well-rounded lead that is, for all intents and purposes, struggling with his identity more so than the thirst for revenge.
THE SALTON SEA is stylistically metaphoric in that it feels like an old-school noir thriller that’s high on meth, amped up and energized by the very drug that fuels the story. First-time helmer D.J. Caruso shows some deft skill and true vision for the film, which is both awesome and sad at the same time as he’s never recaptured this style or spirit in any of his films since. It’s the one-off that stands as the best film of his career thus far, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it leaves you wondering why we never saw more work like this later on.
"...Hamlet's told pretty early on-he's told at the beginning of the story he's the guy [who the bad guy is]. But it really becomes a moral question in the drama. Of course this path along the way he loses himself and doesn't really know why or how he's become like the enemy, because that's what happens in the story. There is this poetic justice. He has to pay dues as Danny. You know he suffers because he was this guy." - Val Kilmer, April 2002
The film is full of characters. There is no real “straight man” in the film, as everyone is a little (or a LOT) odd, unstable, or in some way afflicted, be it by drugs, morality, or, in Danny/Tom’s case: revenge. His tweaker friends are a goofy, rabid, and crazed lot. Adam Goldberg is pitch perfect as an erratic addict who goes to great lengths to steal Bob Hope’s stool sample (no seriously) and Danny/Tom’s best friend, Jimmy the Finn (Sarsgaard) is a wonderfully dim-witted pal who is unquestionably loyal.
Doug Hucthison, perhaps best known for his crazed characters in THE GREEN MILE and PUNISHER WAR ZONE (or his marriage to Courtney Stodden), is actually very calm and normal here, which makes him even more odd given the expectations you have when seeing him. He’s the opposite of all his prior crazy roles. However, the real show for the side characters here is D’Onofrio’s Pooh Bear, a meth dealer who is a sublime mix of funny lunatic and scary sadist, from recreating the JFK assassination to threatening a man’s genitals with a live badger to mixing in “brains” with his breakfast, D’Onofrio hams it up, while still scaring the shit out of you at the same time. It’s a brilliant and fun turn.
The story is best described as a nourish revenge tale, but it also works on a fantasy level as well, leaving many sequences in question as to whether how accurate they could possibly be (i.e. are people really that crazy when using meth? Answer: crazier). Caruso handles it with a well-executed approach, though, and balances the weird with the real so that you’re never robbed of the payoff in the various sequences. It’s a bit of a fairy tale in that sense, as things tend to work out in a dreamlike or even Shakespearian fashion.
"Danny enjoys his pain. It’s part of his dogma for living after enduring the death of his wife." – Val Kilmer, 2002
At the heart of it all is the sense of loss; not just of Danny/Tom’s wife (played by Chandra West), but of himself. As time marches on, he starts to lose sight of which man he is, or ever really was. It’s an understandable dilemma for someone who invests himself so far and so deep into revenge that he starts to forget what it was all for to begin with. However, in a particularly affecting flashback we learn the roots of Danny/Tom’s hatred, which is born of love, hurt, and the utter feeling of helplessness and regret that come with tragedy.
The score by Thomas Newman is one of the composers best and completely different than anything else he’s done. I don’t know how the movie would measure up without it, but thankfully it’s there, helping to create an atmosphere that fits the visual structure to perfection; trippy, haunting, and full of that noir touch. Meshing together the direction, the cast, the story, the score, and everything in between, THE SALTON SEA is an odd, hypnotic, and alluring film that will have you addicted after your first viewing.
"I'm proud of it. It was very challenging and risky with all the different styles that it takes on. If you can imagine reading it, it's just hard to see working because they almost never do." - Val Kilmer, April 2002
Because this is largely a revenge thriller it’s hard to deny the final payoff scene. However, in the interest of avoiding spoilers, especially since the film is full of mystery and reveals, I’m leaving it out. There are two scenes that stand out besides the ending, though, and they belong to the fantastic opening, which hooks you immediately and drags you along for the ride. The other is the first scene between Kilmer’s Danny and D’Onofrio’s Pooh-Bear, where Danny is trying to negotiate a drug deal while being “tricked” into eating something rather unsavory. Or it is? Check out the first ten minutes below and see if you can resist wanting to see the rest of the flick…
"My role in The Salton Sea really affected me in a strange way. Rather than becoming lost or overpowered by it, I was so happy at the end of the day to go home, take a shower, and wash the flames off my arms. The sky was bluer, the trees were greener, and I’d hug my kids like I just narrowly escaped an accident or something. It’s a heavy world and a hard role, but I feel like I’m a survivor in the end." - Val Kilmer, April 2002
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