Home Video Hovel: Kalifornia, by Tyler Smith
Is there anything worse than a stupid film that thinks it’s smart or, even worse, insightful? It can be a lethal combination for any work of art, but there’s something specific about film, which combines so many different stylistic elements, that throws this horrific contradiction into sharp relief. A delusional script can be bad enough, but its flaws can be compounded by self conscious camera work and seemingly-edgy editing, each utilized for maximum impact. The end result of such unearned-confidence is often a film that has all the outward appearances of having a point of view, but has literally nothing to say that the viewer hasn’t already heard in a spirited high school debate.
Dominic Sena’s Kalifornia – recently released on Blu-ray by Shout Factory – has all the narrative and stylistic trappings of a standard 90s thriller, from the aggressive dutch angles to the smash cuts to the nihilistic protagonists. It features elements that we’ve seen before – and more memorably – in films like True Romance and Natural Born Killers. And yet, like a sheltered midwestern kid who takes his first philosophy class, the film seems to think that it has stumbled onto some deep moral truths that it is deigning to let the audience in on.
The story involves sophisticated yuppies Brian and Carrie (David Duchovny and Michelle Forbes) attempting to write a book about serial killers. They decide to take a cross country road trip, visiting notorious crime scenes on their way to California. Realizing that they can’t afford to take such a trip by themselves, they hook up with mysterious redneck Early (Brad Pitt) and his naive girlfriend Adele (Juliette Lewis). This mismatched foursome soon begin to enjoy each other’s company, with Brian particularly taken with Early’s devil-may-care approach to life. Soon, though, darker truths are revealed as Early begins to wreak havoc on his new friends, and Brian learns more about the darker side of humanity than he ever thought possible.
The elitist underestimating of the lower class is always a good hook to hang a story on, and has worked in films as varied as Barton Fink and Cape Fear, with David Mamet’s State and Main being a personal favorite of mine. And yet while the film seems to take joy in disabusing Brian and Carrie of their superior attitudes, it also can’t help but operate on the same preconceptions. Early and Adele’s thick southern accents and unsophisticated comments are only ever meant to be scoffed at. And Early’s lower class mannerisms – from his spitting to his stupid cackle to his exaggerated mosey – are only ever meant to be disgusting, even before he is revealed to be a psychotic monster.
So we are left with a film that condemns its higher class characters for their pretentious views of others, but is more than content to adopt those views itself, looking down on those that might not have the same level of education as the writers. The end product is undeniably misanthropic, which wouldn’t be such a bad thing if the film’s ideas weren’t so utterly basic. Duchovny’s bored voiceover is meant to give the audience deeper insights into these events, but is so broad and generic that one wonders if Brian has actually learned anything from this horrifying affair.
The ineffectiveness of the voiceover is not the fault of Duchovny. He does what he can to show us a man whose realizations about the nature of evil are rocking his world, and he plays these moments with the appropriate mixture of panic and sadness. Michelle Forbes is equally effective as a woman whose natural suspicion leads her to realize something is wrong long before anybody else. And Juliette Lewis’ Adele is equal parts frustrating and heartbreaking, as her inability to grapple with her boyfriend’s brutality rings true in a way that belongs in a much better movie.
The weak spot here is Pitt, who was unfortunately still in the trying-too-hard phase of his career. As he has gotten older, Pitt has become increasingly comfortable on camera, eventually realizing that to simply exist as the character will do more to connect with the viewer than all the physical affections and verbal tics in the world. His Early is more a collection of mannerisms than a true character, played by an attractive young actor seemingly out to prove that he is more than just a pretty face. When we compare his psychopath to Woody Harrelson in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, which would be released two years later, the flaws in Pitt’s performance become all the more apparent. I may be a fan of Pitt’s effortless work in films like Moneyball, The Tree of Life, and the Ocean’s Eleven films, but here he is just painful to watch.
The camerawork by Bojan Bazelli is certainly striking, and at times borders on expressionistic, but it only serves to dress up a mediocre film in more respectable clothes. And Carter Burwell’s score is mostly unmemorable, which is a crime considering his amazing work in similar films like Blood Simple and The Spanish Prisoner.
Overall, Kalifornia is a film with big ideas, but never quite finds a way to bring them down to earth. We’ve seen movie psychopaths before, and have explored the nature of good and evil. Without anything new to bring to the conversation, Dominic Sena is reliant on his stylistic flourishes and performances, some of which are effective, but only underline the film’s empty-headedness. It is pulpy trash masquerading as an art film, ultimately failing to be either.