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IN SHORT: One of the best of the year. [Rated R for strong violence, drug use, language and some sexuality. 100 minutes]
When all is said and done and we get to the end of the year, it is not only the great films that make the best of list, it is the unforgettable characters and performances we've seen as well, that make those lists. For this we thank writer Tony Gayton and actor Vincent D'Onofrio because you're going to be talking about "Pooh Bear" whenever you talk about The Salton Sea.
Not only that, we truly appreciate stories that pack in as much material as possible without making us feel like we're trying to scarf down a Carnegie Hall deli sandwich. We had that feeling with Tony Gayton's last film, Murder by Numbers (though, again, we prefer a little bit of overwriting as opposed to a script that reads as if it has been starved to death in a refugee camp somewhere in Africa) and wished that the writer would learn to cut back a bit. Gayton's done more than cut back. He's put together a story with more twists and turns, not to mention multiple character identities and dim brained lowlife speed slammers, than should be seen this early in the year. It should be seen in December, 'cuz movie critics have notoriously short memories and are even more notoriously sloppy when it comes to making best of lists. That being written, allow us to pause to update ours. OK, onwards...
Like the moaning sound of Charlie Parker's trumpet, so goes the sad story of Thomas Allen (Val Kilmer). Allen with his lovely wife (Chandra West) spent the night on the shores of the Salton Sea -- a real place, 266 feet below sea level in California somewhere. Late in the evening, they stop at a place near the sea to ask for directions. It's the last thing they do. Two masked men, armed to the teeth, kick in the door and, well, that's the end of that story. When we meet Thom, he's tooting his horn, sitting on the floor of a run down room. He's surrounded by piles of cash and they're surrounded by flames that are about to consume all. So . . .
This is the story of Danny Parker (Val Kilmer), a tattooed speed freak who likes to party for days so endless that he can't tell if the time on his wrist watch is AM or PM. He lives in a dive of a rooming house. There's a busted up blonde called Colette (Deborah Kara Unger) living across the hall. Colette's busted up because her boyfriend Quincy (Luis Guzman) has a temper. And nice boots. In that order. Speed freaks notice these things, apparently.
More important, Danny doesn't really care about the boots since he's far more than a "tweaker". Actually, Danny isn't a speedfreak at all. He's a snitch for the cops (Anthony LaPaglia and Doug Hutchinson), instrumental in helping take down one gack peddler after another. He's so good that a never seen dealer named Domingo has put a price on his head. So Danny asks his bestest friend, Jimmy "The Finn" (Peter Sarsgaard) to help him connect a feared dealer nicknamed Pooh Bear (Vincent D'Onofrio) with Bubba, a Chinese Cowboy (BD Wong) with a quarter millions dollars to "invest". The "finder's fee" on the deal would finance a run far away from Domingo, whose rep and perverse methods of revenge are so distasteful that we won't even hint at them here.
That's not the only deal going down in The Salton Sea. With supply chain shrinking, the rest of the party clan comes up with its own way to raise cash for gack, demonstrated in a totally out of genre mini movie called Kujo's Big Score!. It is very funny. It is very disgusting in concept, sloppy in execution and totally out of line with the rest of Gayton's script and director D. J. Caruso's movie but it provides much needed comic relief in the film, because we haven't met D'Onofrio's Pooh Bear yet.
Pooh has snorted so much crystal meth that the surgeons had to remove his nose. You read that right. With a plastic shnozz in place, Pooh and his gang of low lifes are, to be kind, the worst kind of freaks you could ever hope to encounter. No we take that back. Hope that you never encounter Pooh, who doesn't think twice about popping your brain out of its socket with a vice and a hacksaw, and making lunch out of it if you short him on a deal. It is totally gross. D'Onofrio offers up a compelling and transfixing character performance.
And all that being said, none of it is true because The Salton Sea is one big surprise after another and, once all the obvious switches and deceptions and scams play out, Gayton still has a couple more up his sleeves that we knew were coming and totally forgot about. Most of the time our reaction, when the film is a piece of crap, is "when is this thing ever going to end?" When the film isn't crap, our reaction is "good God there's more coming? Bring it on!"
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Nine Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to The Salton Sea, he would have paid . . .
And while most of what you'll see in the first half of The Salton Sea will turn out to be a lie, or a setup for a real nasty story twist, the above rating isn't. You'll be begging for more.
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