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Kalifornia Film Review...Yes, it's meant to be spelled that way. No, I don't know why.

Updated on January 26, 2012
Duchovny was apparently camera shy back then.
Duchovny was apparently camera shy back then.

Oh for the halcyon days of the early '90s when cyberpunk was considered cutting edge and, what with the country and more particularly the entertainment industry riding high on the incredible ratings that Operation Desert Storm was getting, the tiny Renaissance for the fiction of my childhood flourished. It was here that such avante garde works as The Thirteenth Floor, A Pyromaniac's Love Story, The Craft, Jurassic Park, Dick Tracy, and Braveheart allowed the megacelebrities of today to cut their eye-teeth. No conception was too grand, no character study too visceral. Here and here alone was the last bastion of storytelling in Hollywood, before child-friendliness, rehashed high-suspense spy knockoffs, cheap paradigm shifts, and marketability became the watchwords.

True, not everything was hunky-dory about the time period. George Bush senior was telling us to read his lips because he was lying out his ass while Dubyah was snorting enough cocaine to frighten the likes of Keith Richards and Charlie Sheen in his preparation for the coming Reign of Error. But gas was cheap, jobs were available, you could get the bills paid every week, and you could hop a plane without being groped by an overpaid government nitwit trying to hide an erection. Convenience is all that matters, right?

In walks Kalifornia, an upfront no frills horror/road trip film that treads the well-worn path of a psycho trying to get...somewhere. It doesn't matter where, really, because you know all hell will break loose long before they make it.

Here there be spoilers:

Documented proof that Duchovny started the duck-lip craze well before the oompa-loompas on Jersey Shore.
Documented proof that Duchovny started the duck-lip craze well before the oompa-loompas on Jersey Shore.

The set-up is simple enough: two hip, young, goth-lite people that wear too much black and whose hair is naturally spiky in that short-lived homage to the genuine subculture decide they need to start over. Carrie Laughlin (Michelle Forbes) is a photographer who manages to entice her writer boyfriend (who always has far too much money and self-confidence for a genuine writer, just like all the other film portrayals of writers) to drive with her cross country to their new home in California and make stops at various sites where famous serial killings happened for his next book. The boyfriend, Brian Kessler (David Duchovny), acting as our narrator looking back after the events of the story, takes out an ad in the local paper looking for passengers to help pay for the gas of his immaculate Lincoln Continental convertible. Because every struggling writer out there can afford one of those, no problem.

Who should answer the ad but one Every Grayce (Brad Pitt) and his wife Adele Grayce (Juliette Lewis)? It turns out Every is an ex-con who decides to jump parole and has killed his landlord just before their trip. Adele, for all intents and purposes, is Forest Gump were you to deduct about 30 IQ points. Figuring out that Every is a serial killer wouldn't be that difficult, which is probably why the narrator out-and-out tells you this within the first five minutes rather than bother with whole unnecessary revelation plot.

Don't ever go full retard. You won't come back.
Don't ever go full retard. You won't come back.

Ladies and gentlemen, what we have here is a genuinely character-driven story, bereft of unnecessary backstory and wild turns. There are no sudden paradigm shifts. There are no plot twists. What you see is what you get. And what you get is an incredibly solid story whose greatest strength is the actors.

It's hard to tell how much of each character was established by the script's writer, the director, or each of the actors in turn, but each brings something to the table, ultimately for the purposes of showing and examining the quirks of a serial killer in living color rather than dissected by professionals so he can be caught. Adele is what Robert Downey Junior would refer to as "full retard". Psychologists would refer to it as Dunning-Kruger Syndrome, in which a person is so unbelievably teeth-grittingly stupid that they have failed to even comprehend the fact that they are stupid, and so are quite happy and confident in themselves, laboring under the misapprehension that they are intelligent.

By whatever name you call it, Adele's stupidity is just a ruse for the viewer to hide the fact that Every has dominated and controlled her from the beginning. She is essentially treated as a pet, and this becomes apparent near the denouement when, after Every's nature becomes more and more visceral, Adele attempts to stand up to Every and is killed for her trouble. Every simply replaces her with Carrie, going so far as to cut her hair the same way and make her wear Adele's clothes, giving the chilling impression that this is far from the first time that Every has done this, like buying a new budgerigar and giving it the same name as the old one.

Though this has no bearing on Kalifornia, has anyone noticed that Juliette Lewis never completely got rid of that vacant expression after she played Adele? I guess it's really true that if you go full retard, you never come back.

It's not fair that she's paid to play a part where she's angry at her boyfriend and withholding sex until he apologizes for something he doesn't know about. Most women will do that for free.
It's not fair that she's paid to play a part where she's angry at her boyfriend and withholding sex until he apologizes for something he doesn't know about. Most women will do that for free.

Carrie Laughlin's role is manifold. She plays the damsel in distress, the deus ex machina, the confidante of Adele, and eventually the voice of reason whose job is to warn Brian that something is seriously wrong with Every. Of course Brian ignores her, but rather than the return to the status quo, Carrie gives Brian hell for the remainder of the film until Every's true nature is revealed, a much more human and vindictive approach to being ignored which far too many horror films overlook. In that respect, she easily outshines Brian who, by dint of being the hero, is practically a non-entity. He's a naïve mouthpiece for the story, but most heroes are when you're meant to be more fascinated by the villain than anyone else. Just look at The Dark Knight.

The topic which this film seeks to explore is "What makes a serial killer?" Brian's frequent exploration of sites of old killings and speaking into a tape recorder whilst driving does a perfunctory job of attempting to explore what makes a serial killer, why they do the things they do, and what happens to them when they disappear. He is frequently mocked by Every long before Brian realizes just how dangerous Every is, who succinctly put it when he said, "How can you write a book about serial killers when you ain't killed nobody before?"

The ending point of the story is that Brian, a pacifist, eventually kills Every in order to save Carrie: A shot to the chest that would probably result in Every's lungs filling with blood. But Brian wasn't willing to wait. He then shoots Every through the head long after Every is a threat. The murder, done in cold blood, was not at all illuminating for Brian, though it was clearly done out of a burning need to know what had driven Every to such lengths. The film ends with Brian pondering on the fact that he looked into Every's eyes before he killed him and felt nothing. Brian's understanding was that a killer killed people because the act was enjoyable or because the killer felt driven to it. The film ends with Brian none the wiser.

Here, I think, was the singular major flaw of the film which detracted from my overall enjoyment, making me wonder if the actors, director, and writers were all on the same page.

Nothing to see here. just digging a grave before dark. Seriously, it's a pain to dig one at night.
Nothing to see here. just digging a grave before dark. Seriously, it's a pain to dig one at night.

Every was the key to this story, and I've really got to say that Brad Pitt was a much more skilled actor 20 years ago than he is now. No stereotypes were played to. When I looked at Every, I saw the guy who sits at the end of a Carolina bar looking for someone to play pool against at 5 AM on a Tuesday, a beer perpetually to hand regardless of the fact that he never seems drunk. He's grungy, heavily-muscled in that apelike tow-truck driver fashion, always balanced with knees bent and shoulders hunched forward. With a confederate flag on his ballcap, a backwoods parlance, and a constant unpredictable energy in his step, he's always up for a night of drinking and painting the town red. The one thing you won't understand before it's too late is why no one goes near him. He seems so friendly in his rough and tumble way.

He is. And he's always looking for a good time. The problem is that he's carefree. So much so that he doesn't know when to stop. Petting a dog or shooting it dead, it's all the same to him. He cares about nothing and does not possess the capacity for forethought. And that constant migration, it's all to stay one step ahead of his crimes and guilt. He refuses to accept responsibility for anything, and the only time you'll see him angry is when you try to confront him about his actions or accuse him of lying. The only time you see the cognitive dissonance, the warfare going on behind his eyes, is when he can no longer deny what he's done. He's been running from himself for so long that he doesn't realize he's doing it anymore.

And that was instrumental. Every killed not because his parents beat him when he was little, not because he got a charge out of it, or even because the voices in his head told him to. He did it for the very reason that Brian couldn't understand: because Every was able to look someone in the eye and feel nothing at all, neither attraction or revulsion, killing to him was no different than cussing someone out. It's not getting a charge out of the act that makes a killer; it's being able to kill and feel nothing at all. And had Brian's final narrative said something to that effect, I would've enjoyed it much more than I did.

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    • LuisEGonzalez profile image

      Luis E Gonzalez 5 years ago from Miami, Florida

      Welcome to HubPages. Good article

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Script Writer - I like your review. I have not seen the film, but knew "of it" because of all the TV promos. You write smoothly and very well, very readable (but you know that). :)

      I like your sense of humor, the occasional insertion of a sharp, ironic, or acerbic, but funny comment. You used several of my favorite words : halcyon, bereft, visceral, paradigm, cognitive, dissonance, immaculate. I get tired of things with simple, basic, one note words; it's almost as if I get hungry for a mature lexicon every now and then.

      I liked your focus on the characters and character development and your explication of what makes a "killer" at the end was very instructive. Killers don't feel a great rush; killers feel nothing at all.

      Very interesting film review.

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Oh, I forgot to say, I am ridiculously crazy about your warning, "Here there be spoilers." That resonates so intensely....is it a line from a book or a film? I keep hearing "Here there be giants." in my head. Not sure why. :)

    • Script Mechanic profile image
      Author

      Script Mechanic 5 years ago from Wherever Films Need To Be Nitpicked

      I have a thing about words. Since the English language has so many, why should we be limited to just those few that everyone will understand? I like to challenge myself to discover new words which describe abstract concepts, and maybe someone will decide to look one up and learn something too.

      As for the "Here there be spoilers," I'm reminded of the things you see on old treasure maps. Here there be dragons. Here there be giants. And then there's the line given by Captain Barbossa in Pirates of the Caribbean: "You're off the edge of the map now, young miss. Here there be monsters."

      And thanks for the praise. I just got into a serious fight with a woman on Twitter whose work I used to admire. But, when I was simply trying to engage her in conversation regarding the nature of today's publishing industry, she took any criticism as a personal attack rather than an objective look at the industry and spent the next few hours employing indignant rage, overwhelming profanity, and tautological lines of thinking to prove I didn't know the slightest thing about the publishing industry or writing. I could've gone on for hours with her, but there's a point where you've got to cut your losses because there's just no getting through to some people. It confirmed my fears that most if not all commercially-published writers view others with such condescension, and it's been really difficult to shrug it off and keep chugging away. So thank you for the support. I really appreciate it.

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      You are most welcome and sometimes, fairly often actually, you do have to cut your losses. Some people will not be reasoned with and for then everything is personal and emotional. We all know them. :(

      That's it. On maps, "Here there be dragons. Here there be giants." I could see it in my mind's eye but I couldn't place it. I am crazy about old maps. I have several books of gorgeous maps (got the university to pay for them, so that was pretty sweet) and I bought a couple (reproductions of course) pretty good sized maps of the world (before they really knew exactly what it looked like, 1600s) framed them and hung them in my office. Seems like all the maps back them or at least the ones that survived are works of art as much as they are navigational tools.

      There should be more word people; the wonders of language and etymology and inserting the "just right" word into a sentence seem to be lost on most people. Best word in your comment? Without a doubt, tautological. Have a good week.

    • Jarn profile image

      Jarn 5 years ago from Sebastian, Fl

      Well, maybe you would be the person to ask. I'm in the planning stages of a book series that follows Musashi Miyamoto, one of Japan's folk heroes, and I've been trying to be as close to authentic as possible. Do you know where I might be able to find a map of Japan circa 1600 AD? Something with the provinces, fiefdoms, and major towns marked out is what I need. Something with major landmarks and roads too would be stellar.

    • profile image

      Blahblah 3 years ago

      His name is early, not every

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