Monday, February 8, 2010

Kalifornia Dreamin'

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: one of the worst decisions a filmmaker can make is using a writer as his or her main character. Yes, there have been some more than excellent films detailing the ins and outs of penning a masterpiece, but more often than not, the very nature of the profession makes for static viewing.
Kalifornia, Dominic Sena’s 1993 serial killer road trip, is best known as the first starring role for a certain Bradley Pitt and the first of many a psychologically unstable Southern gals for Juliette Lewis. On that front, it works incredibly well. Unfortunately, that’s only half the story.
Quick Plot: Monotone writer Brian Kessler (David Duchovny) and his photographer girlfriend Carrie (Michelle Forbes) are tired of their artistically unfulfilling city existence. Brian has the bright idea to pack up their Lincoln convertible and drive to California, stopping along the way to research and explore past crime scenes of particularly vile mass murders. 

Low on cash (probably because most of their savings went to Carrie’s black leather wardrobe), the couple post an ad seeking others to share some of the gas expenses, driving duties, and a few verses of 99 Bottles of Beer On the Wall.
Who answers the call? none other than Pitt as Early, a paroled grizzly man and his subservient girlfriend Adele (Lewis, all awkward and vulnerable). The city/country (aka weirdos/Okies) juxtaposition is uncomfortable at first, but a few beers, bar fights, and hair cuts tentatively unite the quartet.
If you’ve watched the trailer or know more than three words about Kalifornia, you’re probably aware that the main hook (introduced in a chilling overhead shot about 20 minutes in). Turns out, Early is not above hacking up those that offend him, be they disrespectful landlords or thick walleted strangers at lonely rest stops. Brian and Carrie remain fairly oblivious as they cross over a few state lines, although Carrie can’t shake the feeling that Early has a past darker than her ebony shined triangular haircut. Adele, ever the innocent, refuses to see her lover’s crimes. After all, he only beats her when she deserves it.

For its first 70 minutes or so, Kalifornia is an excellent film, rife with dark possibilities. Pitt exerts a genuinely terrifying charm as a dirty and ruthless killer and for a while, it’s easy to see Brian seduced into the very lifestyle he’s researching. It’s a shame that Kalifornia doesn’t maintain its ambitions. Once Early’s true nature is revealed to Brian and Carrie, the film follows a simpler--albeit suspenseful--chase narrative and by the end, only one of the four leads experiences any real psychological journey. It’s a missed opportunity in character horror, but an exciting enough ride into serial killer territory.
High Points
Small touches of oddness, like Adele’s soft sot for cacti and Early’s hook-handed parole officer, help to give Kalifornia a pleasantly twisted atmosphere through its early scenes
While Duchovny and Forbes have the more thankless straight man roles, they equip themselves admirably. Pitt and Lewis go all out, fully encompassing the scrappy redneck within them and still managing to create real people we can fear and pity.

The first reveal of Pitt’s initial crime is incredibly effective
Low Points
It’s probably more a directorial choice than actor, but Duchovny’s sleepy narration comes off as bland and bored rather than disgusted or fascinated
As stated earlier, the fixed nature of Brian and Carrie ultimately renders Kalifornia a mere thriller as opposed to the deep character study it could have been had Sena let the couple have any room to change or embrace their dark sides

Lessons Learned
Cold weather makes people stupid
While trying to explore a stranger’s house in the hopes of documenting a murder that took place there in the past, perhaps you should bring muffins or at the very least, a smile
Taking your dirty socks off at hotel restaurant won’t endear you to yuppies
Try to avoid photographing strange hillbillies having sex, even if said lovemaking is occurring inside your own car.

Breakfast is a conspiracy put forth by the cereal company, or so many a serial killer theorizes
Kalifornia is certainly worth a watch, both for its strong performances and new cult status. It’s not a bad investment if you dig serial killer cinema, as there’s a lot to savor in Pitt’s rage and Sena’s original choices (such as setting the climax in an abandoned nuclear testing ground a decade plus before The Hills Have Eyes remake). The DVD is rather bare bones, although the short featurette is nostalgic early ‘90s cheese that will bring you back to a time when cable television filled every minute between showings with enthusiastic previews narrated by baritone voiced speakers. Some have called it a great film and though I agree it has elements of greatness, I ultimately felt let down by the film’s hesitation to allow its ‘normal’ characters to cross any lines. Comparing it to something like Se7en or even The Hitcher, it just seems a little too black and white to amount to more than its performances.


  1. Ah yes, I remember this film. All too well. I've seen it more times than a person should see a film they only enjoy maybe a little. I agree with your consensus of the jeers and cheers elements. And 100% with you on the fact that Lewis and Pitt did indeed go the extra mile for their roles. They brought forth the greatest emotional response and it wasn't at all pretty.

  2. Thanks Ashlee! Kalifornia is oddly watchable and I can see it being one of those classic VHS rewatches late nights at college or the like. I think if I'd seen it in 1993, it'd be way more impressive but following another decade and a half of more daring psychological profiles of serial killers, the story and characters come up short.

    And yes, Brad Pitt can do great things when he's playing scruffy or insane men.