Starring David Duchovny, Brad Pitt, Michelle Forbes, Juliette Lewis
Rated R for Strong Violence, and for Sexuality and Language
Be careful what you wish for. You just might get it.
It's an old adage, but one with a lot of truth in it. We all have our dreams, our visions for a life, that while not necessarily perfect, is at least idyllic. We, as human beings, are also pulled to the darker side of our natures. It is a part of being human to be drawn to the things that scare or disgust us. We watch horror movies, we slow down to look at a car accident, we get a thrill out of seeing the hero triumph over the villain. It's human nature.
One of the things that makes "Kalifornia" so effective is that it remembers this. Not only that, this reality drives the characters, in their own way, and thus the plot. Although one could classify this as a serial killer movie, it's an atypical one. There is a tremendous amount of tension in this film, particularly at the end, but "Seven," it is not. This is more of a road movie/character study than your traditional serial killer movie.
Brian Kessler (Duchovny) is a writer who is fascinated by serial killers. He wrote an article that was good enough to get him an advance on a book deal, but he is stuck with writer's block. His girlfriend, Carrie Laughlin (Forbes), is in a similar situation. She's a photographer who also has a fascination with the lurid, but she can't catch a break. Brian decides to leave their life in New York behind and head out to California, stopping by the sites of the most infamous murders along the way. By placing himself in the scenes of the crimes, Brian will be able to write about them and Carrie will be able to photograph them. To help with the expenses, they post an ad on a college bulletin board. They're answered by Early Grayce (Pitt) and his girlfriend Adele Corners (Lewis). Although Carrie is initially horrified when they turn out to be "white trash," the idealistic Brian points out that they don't have much of a choice but to allow them to join them. It's a decision he's going to regret when he comes face to face with the very thing he is pursuing.
Do people become serial killers because of their experiences, or are they just born that way? Brian thinks its the latter, and therefore thinks that serial killers should be treated and studied, not locked up and executed. But as with many things, it's easier to make judgements from a distance. It's another thing entirely when you're locked in the car with one. Early and Adele rub Carrie the wrong way right from the get-go, but due to her polite, liberal nature, she doesn't put up much of a fuss. Their values about themselves and their companions will be pushed to the brink by the end of this trip.
The performances are, with one exception, excellent. David Duchovny is perfectly cast as Brian. Duchovny is best known for playing Fox Mulder on "The X-Files," and his low-key acting style meshes well with the yuppie character he plays. He views Early with a mixture of fear and fascination, and that clouds his judgement about a man who he should clearly stay away from. Michelle Forbes usually plays strong women, and while Carrie is kind of a "go-with-the-flow" type of person, she knows who she is and isn't afraid to speak her mind. The two actors have a lot of natural chemistry with each other, and their relationship between Brian and Carrie feels very real.
Their co-star, Brad Pitt, is very good. As the unhinged hick, it takes a few minutes to buy megastar as a southern redneck, but I quickly forgot I was seeing the actor who routinely gets $20 million+ per movie. Early is the classic psychopath. He freely crosses the line between normal citizen and murderous lunatic with nary a thought. Pitt is genuinely frightening in the role. His co-star, Juliette Lewis, isn't as successful. She does a good job, I suppose, but there's something about her performance that didn't work for me but I can't put my finger on it. Adele is very innocent and child-like, and in denial about Early's violence. She sees him as a protector and her devotion to him is unwavering. She's meant to be a tragic figure, but I dunno. I didn't feel much for her emotionally.
This is a smart and perceptive thriller that understands its characters through and through. Unfortunately a few minor flaws keep it from a 4/4. It's a few minutes too long for one thing. The middle portion sags a bit here and there, and some tightening up on the editing stage would have helped (Early's speeches about a metaphysical door, while brief, don't work). And the ending falls into the common trap of movies like this: rescuing the hostage, the final showdown, not hitting the bad guy when he's down, and so on. That it's still done well soothes the wound, but a movie this intelligent and honest doesn't need to resort to that kind of thing.
"Kalifornia" isn't for the weak of heart. This is a psychologically dark thriller that made me feel uneasy. I mean that as a compliment, but I'm trying to illustrate that this is not for those who like fast paced thrillers or those with easy answers. Ultimately Brian doesn't answer his questions (nor can he), but this is still a most excellent movie.