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