Is he Danny Parker (Val Kilmer) or Tom Van Allen (Val Kilmer)? Not even he is very sure, though he prefers Tom to Danny as he reflects on the events that have brought him to be sitting on the floor of his burning apartment, money strewn across the floor, playing the trumpet. He tries to piece together the jigsaw of his life and starts with the use of meth, in which he is very well versed as he relates the tale of how it was manufactured in Japan initially to help with the soldiers and pilots, then after the war made its way across the Pacific to become a pick me up to housewives, then it became more widely used with President Kennedy among those feeling its benefits, before it was eventually made illegal and the province of biker dealers, which brings it to the status of today…
Which is all very well, but you may be asking what this has to do with the plot, and the answer to that was it was a scene setter, an establishing of tone for what may well have been a neo-noir as seen since the nineteen-eighties, but by this point the genre was curdling into various weirdness. Indeed, for the first half hour The Salton Sea came across as one of those dark dramas with comedy inflections that were ushered in by Trainspotting, especially with its emphasis on the drug abuse aspect and an episodic structure flitting between offbeat sequences in almost stylised manner. This was based on a script by Tony Gayton he had penned as a writing exercise to see what he could do, and not intended to be made into an actual movie.
That accounts for its shapeless form, certainly, and also the way it took chances that a more mainstream effort would not – its parent studio Warners were reportedly very unhappy with how it turned out. But it also accounted for its lack of success in pulling all its elements together into a satisfying whole, as there were individual scenes that impressed, but you couldn’t in all honesty decide whether it was really succeeding in its goal (or goals) or if it was simply a mess which occasionally caught the imagination. Its most famous, or celebrated at least, part was a throwaway scene designed to show off one of the villains’ propensity for drug-addled madness, and for that reason it has stayed with more viewers than you might expect.
For a relatively obscure movie that featured recognisable faces, that was, though one of those faces was distorted in a fashion that spoke to the idiosyncrasy of star Vincent D'Onofrio and his love of the grotesque in his interpretations (not always, but enough times as to be noticeable). Here he played a character nicknamed Pooh-Bear for reasons given but not exactly clearing very much up, a meth dealer who has sampled so much of his own product that he has lapsed into insanity, so he doesn’t have a nose anymore thanks to overdoing it (he sports a plastic prosthetic that thanks to the wonder of special effects he doesn’t always wear), and he likes to eat brains in his scrambled eggs, but more importantly than that for the audience’s memory banks he also restages the assassination of the aforementioned JFK with pigeons.
The Jackie Kennedy pigeon has a pink pillbox hat and everything. Away from that you had a rather mopey, out of it Kilmer mourning his character’s dead wife (Chandra West, seen in flashbacks at the idyllic waters of the title) and getting involved with criminals when he’s actually a “rat”, informing on them for the cops; combine that with the weirdness embraced by the script and you had something oddly reminiscent of Philip K. Dick’s novel A Scanner Darkly, only without the science fiction. Peter Sarsgaard put in a needy performance as one of the addicts who may be Tom’s saviour, Deborah Kara Unger was the lady across the hall standing in as the movie’s broken down femme fatale, and various character actors peppered the rest of the cast in slightly underwhelming readings of the sort of lowlifes our self-pitying hero mixes with, but it never particularly cohered – or congealed – into a convincing entity, more appearing like a collection of show-off bits designed to illustrate what everyone was capable of, a show reel rather than a proper film. Music by Thomas Newman.