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March 16, 2013

Midnight Movie of the Week #167 - The Salton Sea

A crime drama centered in the world of California meth users isn't the kind of film you'd normally find in the Midnight Movie of the Week spotlight, but there's nothing normal about The Salton Sea.  A multi-layered story of revenge and rebirth that centers on an informant who is stuck in a real world purgatory, D.J. Caruso's film is one of my favorite hidden treats of the new millennium. It's a film that I found fascinating when I first saw it more than a decade ago - I was a college kid and it was undeniably cool - but as I watch it now I'm even more fascinated by it.
Val Kilmer stars as a meth-head who is actually a police informant, more commonly known as a snitch.  But it's clear from the opening that this man, known presently as Danny Parker, has a different moral code than most of his methamphetine abusing acquaintances. As he moves through this underworld of "tweakers" he interacts with a rich supporting cast that features plenty of talented actors in unique roles.  As Danny works his way around this world of users, dealers, and cops, he finds himself sinking deeper into a mystery that seems to swallow him whole.

In my professional life in the real world, I've heard the word "snitch" used as one of the most damning insults of a person's character more often than I can count. I get the mindset behind the "snitches get stitches" mantra that has permeated the culture of drug use - it's the same as playing in the playground as kids, when mom doesn't see it it doesn't happen unless someone tells her - but it always amazes me at how much this ideal is accepted. You walk into a room with a bunch of potheads - and comparing potheads to meth users is like comparing toddlers on a tumbling mat to Olympic gymnasts - and they're going to tell you that snitches get stitches in the same tone they would use to tell you the sky is blue. It's become a fact in drug circles, and it's an almost unwritten part of The Salton Sea's tense plot. No one ever says "Hey, this guy's a snitch, he's in danger" - but it's understood from the first time we learn about Danny Parker's role.
The negative stigma that surrounds his secret makes every relationship Danny has a bit difficult. Some of these relationships are just awkward, like the one with his tweaker best friend, played by a young and mullety Peter Sarsgaard or the ones with the more volatile-but-light-hearted tweakers, led by Adam Goldberg. Other relationships - one with a completely nonsensical dealer played by Glenn Plummer in a fantastic cameo, another with a diabolical distributor played by a noseless Vincent D'Onofrio - are dangerous to Danny's life. And then there's the triad of lawmen he's working with - played by Doug Hutchinson, Anthony LaPaglia, and B.D. Wong (as a cowboy-themed FBI agent - who are obviously using Danny for their own needs.  There's a sense of dread much like what you'd find in a classic film noir, because the lead character is clearly on his own if he wants to meet his own goals.
Danny's reasons for what he does are expanded as the film goes on, and what begins as a look into a bizarre subculture of bizarre Los Angeles evolves into a more meaningful and profound film. But the film never loses its sense of humor along the way, as the script is peppered with oddities that keep us surprised by whatever comes next. I won't spoil all the reveals, but let's just say that brain-eating and genitalia being stuck in a badger's cage are two examples of The Salton Sea's bizarre world. (By the way, one of those examples leads to one of the all-time great mantras on film, "People say a lot of things when they're sportin' badger food for a pecker!")
Like cinema's most mysterious treasures, The Salton Sea is better appreciated after the final credits roll. The ending is true to the film's noir roots - which means it is a little over narrated and a slight bit melodramatic - but looking back at the film as a whole makes me recognize that its heart is in the right place. The Salton Sea is a fascinating look into a dark society that doesn't lose sight of where it wants to go. Despite the well-known cast and the assist of producer Frank Darabont, The Salton Sea has been lost in the years since its limited release in 2002. But I assure you that this film, like the truth that Danny Parker seeks, is worth finding.
(By the way, that's an awful trailer. The movie doesn't have the plot or tone it implies. Think noir!)

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