by Miguel E. Rodriguez
DIRECTOR: Dominic Sena
CAST: Brad Pitt, Juliette Lewis, David Duchovny, Michelle Forbes
MY RATING: 9/10
ROTTEN TOMATOMETER: 58%
PLOT: A journalist duo go on a tour of serial killer murder sites with two companions, unaware that one of them is a serial killer himself.
Ask any movie fan for names of actors who played memorable serial killers in film, and you’ll get a lot of obvious ones (Anthony Hopkins, Charlize Theron, Anthony Perkins) and you might get a few not-so-obvious ones (Michael Rooker, Andrew Robinson, Peter Lorre). But I’m willing to bet no more than one person in 20 will name Brad Pitt, whose performance as the skeevy Early Grayce dominates Kalifornia, the 1993 directorial debut film of music video director Dominic Sena (Gone in 60 Seconds, Swordfish). Pitt is so convincing and deliberately off-putting that I came close to switching the movie off and returning it to the thrift store where I found it. Why would I want to keep watching a film where I’m repulsed by one of the main characters nearly every second he’s on screen?
Kalifornia may be predictable to some, but I was blown away by the story development. Brian (David Duchovny) and his longtime girlfriend, Carrie (Michelle Forbes) are embarking on a cross-country road trip from Pittsburgh to California. He’s an author writing a book on serial killers. During their trip, he will visit infamous murder sites to gather material, and Carrie, a professional photographer, will take pictures for the book.
(The first time we see Brian, he’s mixing drinks at a party and holding forth about how the government should rehabilitate killers instead of executing them. They are products of their environment, their upbringing, they’re not ultimately responsible for their own actions because they simply don’t know any better, and so on. Over the course of the movie, his beliefs will be put to the test.)
Brian is short on cash until he finishes his book, so he places an ad on a university message board looking for people willing to split gas and food costs on a cross-country road trip to California. One of the most incisive moments in the movie comes when Brian and Carrie drive to a meet-up point and spot their new travel companions: Early and his girlfriend, Adele (Juliette Lewis), a young woman whose mental development seems to have been arrested at about a 13-year-old level. Carrie whispers to Brian, “Look at them, they look like Okies.” Meanwhile, Adele whispers to Early, “Oh, Jesus, Early, they look kinda weird.” The movie seems to be setting us up for an awkward odd-couple road-trip movie where, uh oh, one of them is a serial killer! But you ain’t seen nothing yet.
During their road-trip, and in between visits to famous murder sites, Early and Brian start to bond a little, much to Carrie’s dismay. Brian has a theory about why the Black Dahlia killer was never found, but Early has another: that he’s alive and well in a trailer park somewhere, “thinkin’ about what he’s done, goin’ over it and over it in his head, every night, thinkin’ how smart he is for gettin’ away with it.” Ohhh-kay…
One night when Brian and Early are at a bar, Carrie and Adele get to talking, and Adele reveals that she doesn’t smoke because “he broke me of that.” Carrie asks her if Early hits her, and her reply is as heartbreaking as it is terrifying: “Oh, only when I deserve it.”
This and several other red flags get to be too much for Carrie, and she gives Brian an ultimatum: “Either they get out at the next gas station or I do, your choice.” What happens at that next gas station I would not dream of revealing, but it ignites the slow burn of the previous hour and turns Kalifornia into a tense, bloody thriller that rivals anything by David Fincher.
I’ve given so many establishing plot details above (I left some juicy bits out, trust me) because I’m trying to convey how this film, which starts out like a slightly amped-up basic-cable movie-of-the-week, shifts into another gear in the second hour. Unsuspecting viewers like me, who have only heard of the movie but never even seen the trailer, will watch the first hour wondering where the good movie is. But have patience, it’s coming. The payoff is worth the wait.
[Author’s note: by the way, don’t watch the trailer for this movie. It gives away WAY too many plot points that I haven’t mentioned, both before and after the gas station incident mentioned above. Just the worst.]
Visually, I didn’t see a lot of the music-video camera pyrotechnics that director Sena would later employ in Gone in 60 Seconds, etcetera. The movie is content to let the dread sort of speak for itself. The various murder sites they all visit seem even creepier and uglier than they need to be. Slick editing brings little details into focus that heightens the tension.
Ah, I can’t think of any way to explain how great this movie is without giving away more plot details, and this movie is best seen in a vacuum, knowing as little as possible. So trust me. If you’re a fan at all of serial killer movies or documentaries, this movie will not only entertain, it will give you a lot to chew over. Kalifornia belongs in the serial killer movie pantheon with The Silence of the Lambs, Psycho, and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Especially that last one.