Tattoos and Trumpets
Val Kilmer tries to swim in the Salton Sea
By Cole Smithey

"Dude, you gotta stop staring at the wall. You're harshing my mellow."

Screenwriter Tony Gayton (Murder By Numbers) coats neo-noir clichés on his script for The Salton Sea like a painter using Popsicle sticks for brushes. Nevertheless, radically naturalistic performances by Vincent D'Onofrio, as a sadistic drug dealer named Pooh-Bear, and Peter Sarsgaard, as Jimmy The Finn, a hopeless but sincere crank addict, transform the movie into a smorgasbord of character acting virtuosity. Val Kilmer (The Red Planet) plays Danny Parker, a jazz trumpet player who becomes a drug addict/police informer after his beautiful wife (Chandra West - Something More) is murdered under extremely questionable circumstances. The movie is largely depressing and assembled with inflated fragments-as with Danny's bogus jazz trumpeter subplot-which cracks the queasy narrative as it unfolds. Audiences who loved Memento will likely enjoy this southern California bloodbath of drug culture.

In its opening scene Val Kilmer unconvincingly plays a trumpet while sitting in a flame-engulfed room where a huge pile of money blows around in the fire. Danny's narration asks us, the audience, to watch the story that follows and report back as to whether we think he's an "avenging angel," a "Judas," or a "loyal husband." It seems that Danny has bitten off more than he can chew in the self-identity department by getting himself covered in tattoos and going on a diet of crystal meth in his one-man crusade to avenge his wife's death.

Danny hangs out with his "tweaker" crank addict friends, staying awake for days at a time snorting crystal meth and rolling around in a smear of drug filth. Danny frequently reports to a good-cop/bad-cop narcotics team played by Doug Hutchison and Anthony La Paglia respectively. Over the past year Danny has so effectively ratted out a significant number of drug dealers that one group known as the "Mexicali brothers" are out for his head. This doesn't stop Danny from exposing his underground activities to Colette (Deborah Kara Unger - Sunshine), his wreck-of-a-bimbo neighbor in an attempt at getting rid of her abusive boyfriend Quincy (Luis Guzman - Traffic). Danny is a very sick boy.

He's a guy who's been greasing the ledge of his self-destruct mode for over a year and is now getting close to assassinating the two men responsible for his wife's murder. That he is so cool, calculating, and focused doesn't rhyme with the indiscretion he shows Colette, but that's just one more doomed subplot behind the laughable 'jazz trumpet player' dummy storyline. You know you're in la-la movie land when Danny takes a locked metal trunk from his closet, at what seems to be a crucial part of the story, to expose a trumpet, a pressed gray shirt, a pair of dress shoes, and a black hat. Danny momentarily dresses up like he's going out to play a gig, but settles for miming a melancholy motif in his apartment. Aside from the fact that Val Kilmer's jazz trumpet playing is about as believable as a cat playing a guitar, the scene smacks of strained hubris.

Danny's grand revenge plan revolves around setting up a quarter of a million-dollar crank deal through his buddy Jimmy (Peter Sarsgaard - Center of the World) that will attract his wife's killers and allow a free rein of bullets to fly. The kingpin drug dealer Pooh-Bear, is a 30-pound heavier and nearly unrecognizable Vincent D'Onofrio as a meth-fiend who has had his nose removed because of the drug damage he's done to himself. Like a cross between Hannibal Lechter and one of the country hicks in Deliverance, Pooh-Bear metes out torture and violence-laden repartee as his normal means of communication with others.

The introduction to Pooh-Bear's character involves a reenactment of the John F. Kennedy assassination, complete with a remote controlled car containing pigeons sitting in for the former president and his wife. Pooh-Bear's minions lay in wait with rifles as the little car winds its way around a mock Daly Plaza track and another lackey films the episode on an outdated 8mm camera. The scene is a prime example of the depths of depravity that Danny has sunk to in seeking revenge. By the film's end, Danny has a lot more hope for himself than most audience members will for the future of his character. As for Danny's rhetorical question about which identity he fulfilled most, I'd say 'moron' would be the most appropriate.