An odd, strangely low-key little drama that only recieved a arthouse-style release earlier this year, "The Salton Sea" likely didn't get much distribution due to the fact that the film resembles Christopher Nolan's "Memento" with a bit of "Trainspotting", some Tarantino-esque style and a dash of David Lynch into the mix.
Val Kilmer plays a jazz trumpeter who, as he stated in the opening, may be a trumper or a low-life speed "tweaker" named either Tom or Danny - it's up to us to decide. By day, he works as a police informant for cops Morgan (Doug Hutchison) and Garcetti (Anthony LaPaglia). Nights pass by in a state of perpetual party, as Kilmer's character attempts, with friends Jimmy (Peter Sarsgaard) and Kujo (Adam Goldberg), to rise up in this speed-fueled community, apparently to avenge the death of his wife (who we see in hazy memories) and to lead the police towards noseless dealer Pooh Bear (Vincent D'Onofrio in an over-the-top performance).
The film itself, a noir-ish blend of interesting styles, offers characters that are nicely realized, but functions almost entirely on atmosphere and tone. Director DJ Caruso and cinematographer Amir Mokri keep the film surreal enough and the general feel uneasy enough that one might wonder if the events are real, or simply part of a haze that will evaporate as soon as it began.
"Salton Sea" may frustrate those who - and maybe rightly so - consider the fact that the film often seems to be made up of slightly connected bits and pieces that don't always lock into the whole strongly. Still, the sort of fragmented feel fits in nicely with the characters and atmosphere. Even so, there's a few moments that go completely overboard into unrelated weirdness, such as one sequence were the Kilmer character's friends try and attempt to steal Bob Hope's stool sample to sell on Ebay.
"Salton Sea" offers an excellent cast, who energetically portray their eccentric characters. While not all of the actors are put to great use, they all at least give it a try. Kilmer, previous star power drained, seems relaxed and, as a result, gives the kind of performance that he used to and shows what he's still capable of. Supporting performances from Adam Goldberg, Luis Guzman, Doug Hutchison, Peter Sarsgaard and Deborah Kara Unger are also very good, although Goldberg gets the least to do.
There are some things that I really enjoyed about "Salton Sea" and some things that kept the film from going from "good" to "great". The film's screenplay and direction are ambitious and original - while this film does use elements from films that have come before it, there's enough strangeness thrown into the mix that what could have seemed familiar seems largely unpredictable. While often somewhat depressing and cold (oddly enough, director Frank Darabont produced), "Sea" still adds the occasional hint of humor and keeps nicely walking the line between depressing and too depressing. The film does a nice job creating its world and populating it with characters that seem convincingly at home in it.
Still, there are some concerns: as involving as the performances are, the film seems to occasionally be satisfied to coast along on its oddness rather starting to push the plot into motion. The film could use some additional editing; aside from the previously mentioned Bob Hope sequence - which could probably have been lost entirely - there are other moments scattered throughout that could have been lost to tighten up the pace.
VIDEO: "Salton Sea" is presented by Warner Home Video in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. The film's dark, noir-ish cinematography is generally well presented by this solid transfer. Sharpness and detail are solid, although not quite exceptional - the picture appears crisp, well-defined and clear, but lacks depth. Shadow detail is very good, but can appear a bit murky now and then.
A few problems were scattered throughout the presentation: minimal edge enhancement appeared during a couple of scenes, although it was largely not bothersome. The print appeared crisp and clear, with no specks or marks. A hint or two of pixelation showed up, but, like the edge enhancement, was too slight to distract.
The film's color palette, largely made up of darker tones and looking muted, appeared accurately rendered, with no noticable faults. Overall, another fine effort from Warner Home Video.
SOUND: "Salton Sea" is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. This is almost an entirely dialogue-driven picture, with the soundtrack opening up slightly for the score, but little else. Surrounds go almost entirely unused, but at least audio quality remained fine, as the score and dialogue sounded crisp and clear.
MENUS: While stylish, the menus are a little on the basic side, with no animation or other touches.
EXTRAS: Unfortunately, not much here: the film's trailer, cast/crew bios and two short featurettes: "Embracing the Chaos" and "Meth and Method" - the first one a general overview, the second a look at production design.
Final Thoughts: A strange trip into an even stranger world, "The Salton Sea" is a beautifully filmed and well-acted noir thriller. While the film went largely unseen in its minor theatrical release, I'd guess it'll attract a following on video. It's certainly not flawless and it's definitely not for everyone, but those seeking a dark, surreal drama should find something or interest within its 103 minute frame. Rent it.
The Film ***