[Author’s Note: This is the second half of a column which began with a review of The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)]
Tom Ripley has the worst of two worlds: he has a sociopath’s instincts for survival, and a sane man’s capacity for guilt.
No such problems for Early Grayce (could the writers have found a more ironic name?) in Dominic Sena’s Kalifornia. As another of the film’s main characters comments: “I remember once going on a school trip to the top of the Empire State Building. When I looked down at the crowds of people on the street, they looked like ants. I pulled out a penny and some of us started talking about what would happen if I dropped it from up there and it landed on someone’s head. Of course, I never crossed that line and actually dropped the penny. I don’t think Early Grace even knew there was a line to cross.” A human being who doesn’t recognize any moral lines is terrifying. Such a person is incapable of feeling guilt, or acknowledging that there are desires which shouldn’t be acted upon. Brad Pitt is extraordinary in his role as the ultimate trailer park nightmare. A feral predator who both revolts and fascinates. This was one of Brad Pitt’s earliest screen roles, and it’s virtually impossible to connect him with the leading man that he would shortly become. He’s a human incarnation of those creatures H.R. Geiger designed for the Aliens series. At least you knew Geiger`s creatures were monsters. With Grayce, you’ll never see behind that beer-swilling, boot shuffling exterior until he’s closer to you than you’d ever want him to be.
Grayce’s girlfriend, Adele Corners, is played by Juliette Lewis. Adele is a damaged, vulnerable young woman who is drawn to Early because he takes away from her all responsibilities for making her own decisions. His animal strength, she believes, will protect her from all the ugliness she’s already experienced in her short life. She fails to recognize that Early’s “protection” is just another manifestation of that same ugliness. When he beats her, it’s “only when she deserves it.” She used to smoke, but Early “broke her” of that habit. She doesn’t say how. Lewis’s is a painful performance to watch. Painful because of the terrible damage that has already been done, and that we know will only intensify as circumstances force Adele into a final realization of who and what her boyfriend really is. Critic Roger Ebert said “Pitt and Lewis give two of the most harrowing and convincing performances I’ve ever seen.” Coming from a man who has seen more films than most of us can conceive of watching, that’s extraordinarily high praise. I think he’s right.
The storyline of Kalifornia puts Early and Adele in the company of a Yuppie couple, a writer named Brian Kessler (David Duchovny in his first starring role) and his partner Carrie Laughlin (Michelle Forbes). Carrie is a professional photographer, specializing in disturbing erotic photographs. Reaching an impasse in their lives in Kentucky, the two of them decide to head towards California. Brian is supposed to be writing a book about serial killers, a subject he’s fooled a publisher into thinking he has a lot more background in than he actually does. He and Carrie decide to visit famous murder sites along the way, doing notes and keeping a photographic record. To help pay for gas, they put up a notice for someone willing to share their morbid odyssey. When Early answers the ad, they wind up with someone as lethal as any of the subjects they’re documenting. From this point, the movie could be a standard get-away-from-the-bad-guy-before-you-die show. It never is. What matters in Kalifornia is the interaction of the four main characters. We can believe that they might find themselves together. Their dialogue is real. It’s up to the viewer to decide if the lessons Brian and Carrie learn about themselves are also real.
Don’t watch this film if you don’t have a strong stomach for violence. If you could handle Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, you’ll be okay. Aside from the performances, one other outstanding feature of Kalifornia is the cinematography by Bojan Bazelli. The film has some of the most effective variations in lighting I’ve ever seen in a single film. There is an aura of starkness and desolation that is consistent through shots of car interiors at night, deserts in daylight, neon lights, and rain-drenched streets. This could be America after some new plague has devastated the continent. The murder sites – a farm, an abandoned slaughterhouse, a mine, an old nuclear test site – that the director and cinematographer create seem far too sinister to be imaginary, and yet that is what they are. The scenes are even eerier for the passage of time that has stripped the murder sites of the physical evidence of death. No blood. No bodies. But the horrors are still lurking in every corner, on every surface, on every rusting hook and in every rotting chair.
The Talented Mr. Ripley is like watching a minor Greek tragedy. Kalifornia is a contemporary Titus Andronicus. Popcorn anyone?
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
Re-watching Kalifornia was an unsettling experience. It has taken me a while to reassess the film that I saw 20 years ago. At first, I thought it was Brad Pitt’s performance that had changed for me. Was Early Grayce just a crude caricature of trailer-park, redneck psycho? If Pitt’s performance doesn’t hold up, Kalifornia is fatally flawed. Still, Juliette Lewis’s incarnation of Adele Corners, a victim of abuse her whole short life, is powerful enough in itself to justify keeping the film on my recommended viewing list. More on Adele in a moment.
Part of my problem with Early is that if we’re talking homicidal hicks, that territory has been covered with more depth and more dramatic firepower in the TV series Justified. I won’t go into detail, because that would be—and likely will be—another article in itself. I think what threw me off as I was watching Brad Pitt this second time around was that I was thinking of him in terms of a serial killer profile. After all, serial killers is, superficially, the overriding theme of the film. But Early isn’t a serial killer at all, he’s just a walking time bomb whose accumulated rage, paranoia, fantasy, ignorance, lack of conscience, and hatred of women explode in a single chain of horrific violence that must inevitably self-destruct within hours or, at most, days. Early lives entirely in the moment, kills on a whim, makes no effort to conceal his crimes or his identity, and is oblivious to the thought of capture or retribution. Contrast this with the lethal body counts of history’s most notorious serial killers, who have often operated for years or even decades before being apprehended and, in some cases, have never been identified. Early Grayce does not belong in this blood-soaked pantheon. Where he does belong is among those anger- & resentment-fueled psychos who rain death down upon their families, their high schools, their co-workers, and upon any racial or sexual minority that the latest media hatemongers have lined up in their sights. Seen in this light, rather than being a caricature, Brad Pitt’s Early Grayce is a profiler’s model of the murderers who make the headlines almost daily in our times. They are not Jack the Rippers. They are not Jeffrey Dahmers. Their names and their crimes will be remembered only by those closest to their victims. The morning that I write this a man has killed one person and wounded five in a shooting in a cabinet-making plant in Bryan, Texas. This will not be in the news tomorrow.
Kalifornia was one of Juliette Lewis’s first films. She’s an extraordinarily talented, versatile actor whose current resume includes almost 100 performances over 34 years. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a performance of more heart-breaking vulnerability than her turn as Adele Corners. If Early is casual cruelty incarnate, Adele is a case study of every powerless individual trapped in a toxic relationship that’s partially blinding them to the realities of the prison that’s killing them. When Adele declares that she feels safe with Early because he will protect her from the violence she’s been a victim of in the past, she is telling the absolute truth. And yet she knows, at an unconscious level, that this is also the man who inflicts her pain upon others and will, inevitably, turn the full force of his rage against her. If I’m not mistaken, Ms. Lewis didn’t receive a single acting award nomination for Kalifornia. How is that possible? Was she so perfect in her role that critics assumed it somehow came “easy”? Or was Kalifornia dismissed as a low-rent horror film unworthy of critical attention? Brad Pitt didn’t get any nominations either. It appears that Michelle Forbes was the only actor in the movie who was nominated for any kind of award.
Director Sena and cinematographer Bojan Bazelli did a fine job of conjuring up an American wasteland for their protagonists to travel through—scrapyards, cheap hotel rooms, abandoned factories & farms & abattoirs, and even a derelict nuclear testing range. This is a post-Apocalyptic America without the Apocalypse. These are the kinds of settings that begged for their own American Gothic TV series…and got it in spades with The X-Files.
No need to go into Brad Pitt’s and David Duchovny’s subsequent high-profile careers. Michelle Forbes has worked steadily since the late 1980s, with key roles in multiple TV series. Director Dominic Sena has made only a handful of feature films, the last being 2011’s Season of the Witch. Cinematographer Bojan Bazelli continues to work into the early 2020s, with 44 film credits on Imdb. Composer Carter Burwell currently has 70 credits, two Oscar nominations, and another 29 wins & 76 nominations.
Available on YouTube? No, but available for rental or purchase through iTunes