The Salton Sea

Year: 2002
Production Co: Castle Rock Entertainment
Director: DJ Caruso
Writer: Any Gayton
Cast: Val Kilmer, Vincent D'Onofrio, Peter Sarsgaard, Adam Goldberg, Luis Guzmán, Anthony La Paglia, Deborah Kara Unger, BD Wong, R Lee Ermey, Danny Trejo

Val Kilmer was at an interesting point in his career, with Batman and other A list roles behind him and his reputation of being hard to work with having already all-but derailed his career. You might have assumed there are few other big names in the movie for that reason, but the cast is actually packed with recognisable faces, with Vincent D'Onofrio's performance in particular blowing Kilmer off the screen altogether.

As the (apparently badly injured) guy playing a trumpet while wearing a hat and leaning against a wall in a burning house that opens the film makes clear, it's a noir thriller trying a bit too hard to be cool at the outset.

It then launches into a frenetic sequence showing the same guy, Danny (also called Tom, and as he says in his introductory voiceover, but he's so far gone down whatever rabbit hole the story comprises he isn't sure which one he even is any more), now a meth addict living in an LA crackhouse with an assortment of dirtbags who've been so high for so long they don't even know if it's day or night anymore.

He and his friend Jimmy (a very early Peter Sarsgaard) go off to score from a local dealer who's dangerously unhinged, giving you more of a glimpse into the world Danny/Tom now inhabits.

But when he finally leaves his friends and their drug den to go home for a spell, he meets two nasty plain clothes detectives it's revealed he's informing for. The dealer he and Jimmy have just seen has a connection to a big time cook out in the desert, Pooh Bear (D'Onofrio), who he's working on leading the cops to.

When he finally goes home, washes out his greasy hair and takes off the dingy clothes, he cleans himself up, gets dressed nicely and takes out his trumpet and a photo of a woman he's apparently lost. He also meets his new neighbour across the hall, Colette (Debra Kara Unger), who's being abused by her sleazebag boyfriend (Luis Guzman), making him wonder if he should step in and offer help.

But his two police handlers have bad news. Because of a past sting he helped set up, a Mexican cartel who knows who he is wants revenge, so he has to get out of Dodge pronto. It doesn't help that he starts seeing a grey BMW prowling the streets near his apartment building, apparently looking for him.

He uses his connection to meet Pooh Bear, who he visits at his desert compound promising to facilitate a big sale, but the cook and dealer is so psychotic Danny/Tom wonders if he's in over his head.

After that we discover he's actually informing for the FBI as well because of his cop handlers being involved in a crime, but I can't say anything else about that without blowing the whole story.

The inciting incident, which we see in a flashback right before the climax, was he and his beloved wife taking a drive out to the titular dry lake in the deserts of California and stopping on the way back home to ask directions, a decision that upends Danny/Tom's life forever.

It all culminates in a ferocious shootout at Pooh Bear's compound with everyone involved that sees him exact the plan he's actually had all along before returning home where the story of Colette and her maniacal boyfriend also comes to a head – and involves him more than he realised.

It's competently enough staged and shot, and the script does make sense when you get to the end and the motivations and actions of the characters have all been laid out on the table for you, there's just something all a little too forced about it.

Some films achieve cool effortlessly, but some hone in on it too strenuously and end up overreaching. It tries to meld structures and ideas from the 40s noir movement with a Tarantino aesthetic, and even with successful elements like the seeming expertise about underground junkie culture, it only half succeeds.

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