Drug flicks have almost evolved into a genre of their own. Filthy apartments and strung out punks are practically familiar things now, and I bet even the squarest, most white-bread moviegoers have gained a pretty precise idea of how to cook and inject heroine just from watching films like “Pulp Fiction” and “Trainspotting”! Now comes “The Salton Sea”, most concerned with “tweekers”, i.e. speed users. The movie begins intriguingly with star Val Kilmer sitting in an apartment on fire, playing the trumpet while stacks of money and the rest of his possessions burn. Through narration, he tells us that he’s Tom Van Halen, or maybe Danny Parker… Avenging angel? Judas? He’s not so sure, but what he knows is that lately his existence has mostly revolved around finding, consuming and dealing speed.
First-time director D.J. Caruso gives the first act of his picture a manic, exciting feel. Danny and his fellow junkies live in the “land of the perpetual night party”, and Caruso communicates this effectively. He uses every cinematic trick in the book to make us as dizzy and confused as the characters on screen, with sped up or slowed-down shots, trippy long shots and kinetic fast edits. Kilmer is unrecognisable, all tattooed up, wearing skull rings, punky clothes and Elvis sunglasses. At that point, I thought this was turning out to be one of the better “drug movies”. Unfortunately, after about 20 minutes, Caruso seems to run out of style and the film deflates into Hollywood conventions like the big score, dirty cops and the abused girl-next-door in need to be saved.
Writer Tony Gayton feels the need to spell it all out for us, giving Parker a motivation for hitting rock bottom and railing him into a routine violent revenge fantasy, kind of like “Memento” but without the innovative storytelling. Worse, the film eventually washes its hands clean of the drug angle with a contrived end-of-second-act twist revealing that half the characters aren’t really what they seemed. Hence we’re stuck with a movie that’s neither shameless in its chemical hedonism like “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” nor a profound and powerful study of addiction like “Requiem for a Dream”. “The Salton Sea” uses the drug culture merely as a gimmick for its B-movie sensibilities.
There are still things to enjoy in the movie, namely some of the colorful supporting performances like Luis Guzman’s wife beater and Vincent D’Onofrio’s plastic nosed drug lord Pooh Bear, or quirky but pointless flourishes like the recreation of the JFK assassination, the crotch-biting badger or an old man’s karaoke performance of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side”, but like last year’s “Blow”, this is a movie that starts out ballsy and stylish but fails to keep it up and settles into clichés.