(Dominic Sena, USA, 1993)
A tense thriller, Kalifornia has pretensions to being something less predictable than a yuppie nightmare movie for counterculture types, but it isn't. Despite surface flashiness, it's a Hollywood formula piece, full of suspense and nastily knowing scares, and a worldview as narrow and repressive as Death Wish: learn to use a gun, kill or be killed. Just as Bronson's suspicion that black and Hispanic young men are inevitably murderers and rapists was proved more than correct within the context of Death Wish 1 and 2, Kalifornia confirms the repressed fear of an educated, middle class Northern couple when faced with Early Grayco (Brad Pitt) and Adele Corners (Juliette Lewis), poor white trash from the Deep South. Journalist Brian Kessler (David Duchovny of X-Files fame) and his photographer lover Carrie Loughlin (Michelle Forbes), are two dressed-in-black slipstreamers who decide to drive across the South to California, visiting as many sites of serial killer murders as possible, for a projected book. Lacking funds, they advertise for a couple to share expenses, and end up with Early and Adele. As the journey progresses, it becomes apparent that Early has quite an affinity for serial killers himself...
Kalifornia is stylish, mixing the murky, rain drenched darkness of Alien and Blade Runner with the similarly smoky look of Angel Heart. Frames are filled with glamorously backlit derelict buildings, menacing crane shots, noir-ish shiny wet backstreets. Although visually over rich, and despite occasional direct steals (Carrie's motor-driven camera zooms in just like Deckard's photograph enhancer in Blade Runner), Kalifornia looks great. Admittedly, it sometimes looks great in the way a cheap Taiwanese hi-fi sounds great: by being so in your face that it's only later the lack of depth and resonance becomes apparent. Nevertheless, the film's best moments are very strong and very visual. In a chilling scene, Carrie watches Early screwing Adele in the back of a car. Fascinated, Carrie attempts a surreptitious photograph. Finding courage, she clicks the shutter, alerting Early to her presence. He looks up, and fixes both her and us with a stare. Pitt is terrifying here, no mistaking his intention, no escaping the feeling of going from watcher to watched.
Walk-ons and cameos from various weirdos, rednecks and losers add much. Seen sleazing around run down bars, they create a background that hints toward surrealism, but is ultimately merely additional colour. While Pitt intently flicks a struggling cockroach into a pile of bar top, burning cigarette ash, a crazed old timer mutters like a hillbilly William Burroughs about a female Jesus with "Seven heads and seven tails". This surpasses anything from Angel Heart or Wild At Heart, but unfortunately, such scenes are the exception. As ignorant redneck and masochistic girlfriend, Pitt and Lewis may as well have giant signs of fizzing neon spelling 'INSANE' flashing constantly above their heads. Yet, they are respectively genuinely frightening and pitiful. It's obvious Early is working class: he belches loudly at every opportunity and beats up Adele. Lewis plays Adele in her familiar 'little girl lost' manner. A perpetual victim, she refuses to see any bad in Early, and it's no surprise she recounts tales of past abuse and rape. Although clichéd, they're far more persuasive than the ridiculous turns perpetrated by Nicholas Cage and Laura Dern in Wild At Heart.
Kalifornia attempts to jab at serial killer chic, and, true, there is nothing beguiling or attractive about Early. But Early is more a robber-murderer, like Clyde Barrow (who is mentioned at one point). He wouldn't attract any sick fandom anyway. In fact, the film seems approving of him in some ways. Unlike 'new man' Brian, he is a REAL man, able to fight, knowledgeable about guns. These are seen as virtues, and Brian has to adopt some of Early's viciousness if he hopes to survive. The film uses a voice over, and makes the usual mistake of including scenes that narrator Brian would have no knowledge of, such as Pitt and Lewis alone together. The narration disappears in the middle of the movie, cropping up briefly at the end. The film is more proof of just how scared Americans are of each other. Early fits in with the weird surroundings, simply an extreme example of their effects. In a bar, Brian gets in trouble for being different, Early's violent rescue is far more acceptable to other patrons than Brian's apologies. To it's domestic audience, it says: beware. Your fellow Americans are out there, and they hate you. 7/10
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