Seldom Scene
Movie reviews by Gerald Panio

Kalifornia (1993)

[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

Movie Information

Genre: Crime | Drama | Thriller | Horror
Director: Dominic Sena
Actors: Brad Pitt, Juliette Lewis, David Duchovny, Michelle Forbes
Year: 1993
Original Review: July 2001


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Films Worth Talking About:

Schindler’s List, El Mariachi, Groundhog Day, Point of No Return, Falling Down, La Scorta (The Escort), Much Ado About Nothing, The Piano, Farewell My Concubine, Jurassic Park, Cliffhanger, Like Water for Chocolate, In the Line of Fire, Sleepless in Seattle, The Joy Luck Club, Short Cuts, Three Colors Blue, The Age of Innocence, Germinal, A Bronx Tale, Demolition Man, The Remains of the Day, Philadelphia, What’s Love Got to Do With It, Tombstone, Cronos, Cool Runnings, Sonatine, Naked, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, Manhattan Murder Mystery, Mrs. Doubtfire, Menace II Society, Les Visiteurs, Raining Stones, The Blue Kite, Benny & Joon, Searching for Bobby Fischer, Little Buddha, The Scent of Green Papaya, Swing Kids, Window to Paris, The Remains of the Day

The Bigger Picture

FilmsNatural Born Killers (1994); The Hitcher (1086)

Music:  Carter Burwell: Music for Film {Brussels Philharmonic)

Books:  Jim Thompson, Pop. 1280

The Word on the Street

The other true star, beyond Pitt and Lewis, is the cameraman, Bojan Bazelli, working with some great sets and with a director who sets him free. In some scenes, the arrangement of characters just talking, is filled with such space and layer and light, or with such audacious rain, you want them to hold it longer so you can get it all. For all the ugly things that happen, this is a beautiful movie. The director? Dominic Sena, a music video shooter. That’s probably why it looked so good and had some stumbles in the bigger vision.   [secondtake]

Dominic Sena’s Kalifornia is a brilliantly vicious dark fable, a moody cautionary tale regarding the dangers of trust, the true nature of the sociopath and the ironic way in which demons sneak up on us while we are to busy looking for them with our backs turned. It’s also damn fine thriller filmmaking and fits nicely into a subgenre which I happen to be an avid fan of: the American road movie. The highways, byways and back roads of desolate rural USA have a bitter menace that clouds the air like the desert dust kicked up by many a vehicle on their way through. There’s endless possibility out there, for great and terrible evil, in a place where help is always a county away and opportunity looms on the horizon like the bloated California sun.   [NateWatchesCoolMovies]

A slick trunkful of sleaze.   [ozjeppe]

For a start the writers needed to look up the definition of serial killer before they started because the main character that is referred to in all the bi-lines and plot summaries may be a murderous psychopath but he is not a serial killer. Killing more than one person does not make one a serial killer. Serial killers are driven by an obsessive psychotic fixation and kill people that tend to share specific characteristics, which may be physical, social, etc.   [zippyflynn2]

A human being is a beast deep inside, we have instincts and things we don’t like to talk about, it’s only about what side of our nature is primary and what side is kept somewhere hiding and un-active. The film ends as the main protagonist is about to finish his job and has found some very dark sides of his own soul, too. The traumatic childhood is again one key reason for the birth of these disturbed minds, and the film tells once again the importance of safe and peaceful childhood. The main theme of Kalifornia is the psyche of human being, and many aspects of it. Whether we want it or not, admit it or not, what the film says about our many sides of nature are totally true, and the main character learns that in the most violent and nightmarish way.
Technically this film is brilliant! Kalifornia is shot by Bojan Bazelli, a guy who has made many Ferrara films look as fantastic as they look….   [Bogey Man]

…it’s Lewis who leaves you trembling after a handful of mesmerizing monologues, the descent of her character, and just the pure, tragic naivete she evokes in her use of her voice, face and body. There are even moments where she leaves the loudest silences between her line and the next character’s, during a precious few of which I actually felt like I understood something about the harshest realities of the harm society’s dregs and failures inflict on themselves.   [jzappa]