Kalifornia (1993)
By: Michael McQueen on October 1, 2007  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Magna Pacific (Australia). Region 4, PAL. 2.35:1 (16:9 enhanced). English DD 2.0. 117 minutes
The Movie
Director: Dominic Sena
Starring: Brad Pitt, David Duchovny, Juliette Lewis, Michelle Forbes
Screenplay: Stephen Levy, Tim Metcalfe
Music: Carter Burwell
Tagline: "A state of fear and terror"
Country: USA
Brian (David Duchovny) is a semi-successful journalist/academic whose work on serial killers has the potential to become a best-selling Pulitzer-winning novel – at least, he thought so. With his advance spent, dogged by writer's block and sabotaged by self-doubt, Brian hits upon a fix-all solution: a gonzo-journo-style road trip to sunny California with scenic stopovers at some of America's notorious multiple murder landmarks. Brian's research has an intimate angle attached to it – a sort of sympathy for the devil – to find out what separates 'us' from 'them' and his amateurish attempt at psychoanalysis and this road trip provide the perfect opportunity to animate the mental mechanics of a serial killer! He and girlfriend Carrie (Michelle Forbes) are joined by hillbilly trailer trash couple; beer swilling ex con, Early (Brad Pitt), and childish waif, Adele (Juliette Lewis), deformed lowlifes scraped from America's scummy underbelly. Relations are immediately tense: Carrie and Early immediately share a mutual dislike, and the sensation that something is seriously wrong creeps up on you like icy cold fingers on a warm scrotum. At Brain's insistence the double date goes ahead. Unbeknownst to him, Carrie's concerns will be gruesomely realised.

Brain's question about what separates 'us' from 'them' is a question fundamentally about identity and identification, about how to determine who is normal and who is psychopathic. Any clichés that Brian has in mind about these lunatic boogey men are swiftly eroded when it is revealed that Early is a serial killer. Don't worry, I haven't just spoilt the final twist - that fact is revealed almost immediately after the two couples disembark for the open road. The irony of course is that Brian's obsession with serial killers reveals how little he knows, and how useless his pop-sociology is when confronted with his subject. Serial killers are not mystical or ambiguous beings, the stuff of urban legends and campfire ghost stories. They are real people, living in the world right alongside 'normal' people, disguised under a thin veil of civility. Unwittingly, Brian has ensnared himself and his girlfriend into a trap, deadly danger that he doesn't recognise. The cracks in Early's mask are beginning to show: his penchant for reckless violence and domination over Adele are becoming more frequent and dangerous. It's not long before the trail of bodies he's leaving behind catch up with him. Brian and Carrie soon become hostages on their own road trip, and Brain's psychoanalytical theories no longer seem relevant. Forced to confront his subject-turned-captor face to face Brian will see this trip out to the end, but at what cost to his own humanity?

Kalifornia inhabits a curious thematic space somewhere in between David Lynch's Wild at Heart and Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers. Of course, it doesn't achieve the sensory heights and impact of either of those, but it holds its own well enough. Kalifornia is directed by Dominic Sena, whose prior experience amounted to a Janet Jackson concert and a Michael Bolton film clip, and went onto direct turgid Hollywood tripe like Gone in 60 Seconds and Swordfish. This is hardly the most inspiring resume for a director embarking on a movie project involving serial killers and a sinister journey into the American badlands. That Sena pulls Kalifornia off with a credible amount of style and morbid fascination is to his credit, as is the cool cinematography and exploitation of scenic locations. Many shots are unexpectedly graceful, not over-burdened by stylisation and atmospherically sparse in moments. The film is shot with a sunburnt yellow/orange tint, giving the impression of a faded photograph. The story may be unoriginal, but there is a technical confidence in Sena's visuals, which means Kalifornia is never harsh to look at – at some points, it's even downright haunting.

It's difficult to imagine a sub-genre in horror more pillaged than the 'serial killer movie' and Kalifornia cautiously treads a well-worn path of clichés. Brian's amateur attempts at psychoanalysis and over-moralising reflections of man's fragile civility are told on a gratingly monotonous voice-over track that is trite and patronising. The final showdown between Brian and Early is inevitable, and the 'twist' in Brian's research, which forces him to confront in the living flesh his unknown and unstable subject, feels stupidly blatant and tiresome – how many times have we seen this before?

Not that Kalifornia is lazy; the plot may be burdened by an over-reliance on genre formula, but there is much to admire here. The characters are far more multi-dimensional that we have right to expect, and all the actors are fresh-faced in early roles. Brad Pitt once again proves that he can act when he isn't too busy being Brad Pitt: his characterisation is the most convincing as it renders him practically unrecognisable. Early stabs a man to death with casual ambivalence, stomps a man's face in a bar with senseless aggression; he rampages and ruins all in his path. In a queasy sex scene between him and Adele, with Carrie looking on, he gazes up from between a pair of legs raised in the air and lustfully leers down the camera, a deranged smirk plastered all over his face, as he thrusts harder and harder with a new determined ferocity, his stare penetrating ours and Carrie's, who cannot help but to look on, aghast. Early is a man who takes what he wants, when he wants it, however he can get it. His complete lack of empathy is underscored as Adele struggles underneath him in the back seat of the car, her protests barely audible to us, not even registering with him. We know that soon, Carrie will belong to him. Juliette Lewis' performance as Adele is seriously unsettling. There's something ethereally child-like about her in this movie – her schoolgirl bangs, her nervous thumb sucking and clueless verbal diarrhoea all point to a hapless victim living in denial about her captor and tormentor. Her denial eventually seals her fate. Duchovny betrays some inexperience in front of the camera, but his acting isn't as poor as Forbes', who isn't really a believable actress, and her performances are unnatural, laboured and uninspired.

My biggest gripe with this film is the ending, which is obnoxious and contrived. The message seems to be that serial killers are just like you and me, and that man's civil façade is under constant threat of fracture and disruption, exposing people as Hobbesian animals of survival and violence. The ultimate closure to such a message seems to be exploiting criminals and their crimes for financial gain and retiring to live in a bungalow on the beach, whilst the victims of these crimes are forgotten or sentimentalised. This is a flaccid and unsatisfying response to the weighty themes the narrative raises. The film is desperately crying out for a real climax; something bleak and sinister, or a hopeful message of redemption, both of which it failed to deliver.

With a plethora of 'serial killer' films on the market (most of them reviewed on this site), Kalifornia isn't much more than a footnote in the genre. It is, however, well cast, brilliantly acted (for the most part) and Sena's direction and cinematography are colourful and stylish. The re-heated plot manages to avoid the cliché potholes without losing its focus, despite eventually compromising on a weak ending that doesn't come off quite as bleak as it wants to be, or should have done. Overall we are presented with a neat, well made movie that respects the formulas whilst adding its own personal touch to the proceedings, but which falls short of being an underground classic.
Kalifornia is presented in 2:35:1 aspect ratio (with a 16:9 enhancement). The image is bright and clear, though a little murky in some places.
Unspectacular but serviceable Dolby 2.0.
Extra Features
El zilcho.
The Verdict
Kalifornia is, at best, a three star movie. Ordinarily I'd be pissy about the absence of any extra material and deduct one point on principle, but seeing how this is a budget-priced package (mine cost $6.75), and the film largely speaks for itself, I'm willing to let Kalifornia be judged on its own merits.
Movie Score
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