The Salton Sea is a body of salt water lying some 225 feet below sea level in California's Imperial Valley. It is a dead lake, and the landscape around it is also desolate and eerie. For obscure reasons, a jazzman, Danny Parker (Val Kilmer), and his wife are vacationing there. They ask for directions at a forbidding house inhabited by methamphetamine dealers. While they are there, masked criminals break in, and Danny's wife is killed by the intruders.
Danny himself now becomes a dead sea; no visible emotion roils his surface. He appears at first to have become a meth addict, but that's mere pretense. So is his work as a police informer. All his activities are secretly aimed at finding his wife's killers. His neo-noir trail is violent (particularly when he encounters Vincent D'Onofrio's deeply scary druglord) and, occasionally, rather disturbingly funny.
The surprising intricacy of the plotting of The Salton Sea, the self-conscious care with which director D.J. Caruso has composed it and the passionate intensity of its actors all signal a serious effort to break out of its neo-noir roots. At a time when it is hard to remember a big studio film that aspired to anything beyond the top spot at the box office on opening weekend, this kind of ambition is not to be casually dismissed.
Yet how can one possibly recommend The Salton Sea? If it could, this nasty film would make you smell the disgusting food on the table. And that says nothing about its casual sadism. One spaced-out speed freak has his female companion sandwiched between mattress and box spring, her legs twitching convulsively while he conducts a drug deal. The bad people in this film are, frankly, morons. They are not theoreticians of the theater of cruelty. It is their creators who are confusing the administration of giggly shocks with aesthetic ambition.
The conventionality of the typical Hollywood product is tiresome. So is the industry notion that triumphs of the human spirit--see almost any Oscar nominee--constitute a higher seriousness. But the response to these conditions should not be to make movies designed merely to drive John Ashcroft crazy. That we have a deadly drug demimonde in this country is a tragic given. That popular culture has a right to examine it is also obvious. But moviemakers have to be something more than movie-smart adolescents to do that job effectively.
--By Richard Schickel