Val Kilmer, reprising his role in the notorious “punk rock” episode of <i>Quincy</i>: Nice bramwell, dude!

Val Kilmer, reprising his role in the notorious “punk rock” episode of Quincy: Nice bramwell, dude!

Rated 4.0

The Salton Sea is an acrid blast through Southern California drug dens populated by bottom-feeders who are at times so out of control or evil or both that I wanted to rush home, gather up my loved ones and move to another planet. The film has freshman director D.J. Caruso expertly cutting tragedy, entrapment and revenge into jolting snorts of methamphetamine noir. The result is mesmerizing—filled with menace and squalor.

The murky, highly amped story begins with a blue-suited man (Val Kilmer) sitting coolly on the floor of a room. He is playing trumpet while flames threaten to engulf him. His voice-over narration indicates that his identity is blurred. “My name is Danny Parker or Tommy Van Allen. I really don’t know anymore.” His entire life is fractured. Avenging angel. Judas Iscariot. Loving husband. Prodigal son. Prince of Denmark. Is he all of these? None of these? He invites us to decipher his past and future as we slither into a land of perpetual party, in which day consumes night, night consumes day and nothing is as it seems.

The film continues with our host at play as speed freak. “I know what you are thinking. But don’t give up on me yet,” says Danny. He then provides some background on the weird world of the tweaker in pseudo-documentary fashion. We watch vintage film clips as he links meth use to World War II kamikaze pilots, President John F. Kennedy, American housewives of the 1950s and bikers and truckers of the 1960s. After a male Julia Child of the drug trade catches fire and blows up his “kitchen,” we sink deep into Danny’s netherworld of narcotics buys, bashes, betrayals and busts.

The heavily tattooed Danny (massive amounts of body art are the norm here) survives in a very tenuous position on the food chain. He is both a user and a snitch. He hangs with people he swears allegiance to during the night and whom the next day he wouldn’t cross the street to piss on even if their heads were on fire. He is a punk in a Mohawk haircut. He is also a tragic figure ravaged by guilt and in search of redemption.

The Salton Sea is a mosaic of elements from such previous films as The Usual Suspects (the bookend fire and narration), Trainspotting (substance abuse coupled with sadistic violence), Taxi Driver (the data-spewing gun salesman) and Memento (the basic plot of a man hunting his wife’s killer). It has the feel of authenticity and profanity of a Tarantino opus, intoxicating camera work reminiscent of Requiem for a Dream, and even a Dirty Harry series tribute (Danny makes a spent-bullet count before deciding to impale an attacker with a syringe). It is to the credit of Caruso and screenwriter Tony Gayton that the material comes together in a decidedly fresh fashion.

The supporting characters include a battered neighbor (Deborah Kara Unger), a Latin thug (Luis Guzman), a loyal friend (Boys Don’t Cry’s Peter Sarsgaard) and a good-cop (Doug Hutchison)/bad-cop (Anthony LaPaglia so mean that he even hates dolphins) team. There’s also a vile dealer called Pooh Bear (an over-the-top Vincent D’Onofrio) who looks more porcine than ursine when we see him without his plastic nose.

The music is an eclectic mix from artists including Terrence Blanchard, Patsy Cline, Blink-182, Moby and Lou Reed. A segment that recreates the Kennedy assassination with pigeons strapped into a remote controlled car and the use of a famished badger to gnaw on male genitals will certainly make some viewers cringe. And a scam to steal Bob Hope’s stool specimen and sell it in on eBay feels more like unnecessary filler posing as ingenuity.

Kilmer was excellent in the past as Jim Morrison in The Doors and Doc Holliday in Tombstone, but many of his performances have felt starched with narcissism. Here he is not very convincing that he can play the trumpet in a way that would make the heart of Danny’s wife ache. But that is just one missed note in the key of a life that is drastically changed when a man and his wife inadvertently show up at the wrong place at the wrong time.