Sporting more tattoos than Guy Pearce in "Memento," Val Kilmer dips himself in ink to portray drug addict Danny Parker in "The Salton Sea."
A "tweaker," or crystal methamphetamine addict, Parker's days and nights are spent scoring dope, staying up for days on end, treating himself like a junkie pin cushion. Outside drug deals and sweaty basement parties, he's a snitch, a police informant with an ulterior motive. Parker, it seems, used to be Tom Van Allen-until he and his wife stumbled into a violent drug ring. He survived, she didn't.
It's an oft-explored dichotomy in the superhero genre, even by Kilmer himself in "Batman Forever." Trauma produces a personality split, where a shadow persona solves problems the other half can't. In comics, a child witnesses his parents' violent death, propelling him into adulthood as Bruce Wayne, daytime playboy millionaire. At night, he's Batman, dark knight and masked vigilante.
Instead of a cowl, however, Tom Van Allen surrenders his skin and body to his shadow self, Danny Parker. But Parker still exists only to carry out vengeance, to find those responsible for his wife's death. Who's in control then? Is it our protagonist Tom or Danny?
"The Salton Sea," for all of its setup and surrealist scenes, falls apart within this central metaphor, only skimming the surface of a dilemma better explored in the pages of Detective Comics or The Amazing Spider-Man.
Unlike Jason Patric, who played an undercover cop turned junkie in 1991's "Rush," Kilmer's self-conscious, all-or-nothing performance remains hobbled by a script that doesn't push him into the deeper waters of drug addiction. While his character's singularity of purpose is honorable, his body's dependence on meth and the mind's tendency to bury sorrow in addiction never provide a needed internal conflict. Instead, he's provided a love interest in his neighbor (Deborah Kara Unger) and a cartoonishly ghoulish antagonist in Vincent D'Onofrio's Pooh Bear.
An insane, reclusive drug dealer who wears a prosthetic nose after losing his to an indulgence with nose candy, Pooh Bear is the monster other drug dealers tell their children about at night. With a frighteningly comic nasal whistle, D'Onofrio's performance comes in with such hick bravado, such stereotypical hyperbole, that he's fun to watch, even if we've seen him before.
In fact, much of screenwriter Tony Gayton's script echoes the ultra-violent, hypercool style of films in the wake of "Reservoir Dogs." He also tries to one-up P.T. Anderson's firecracker-laced drug deal in "Boogie Nights" with his own transaction in a dirty hotel room, complete with a freaked-out, harpoon-wielding drug dealer and his wife, whom he's trapped under the mattress.
It's easy to be dazzled and distracted by director D.J. Caruso's post-"Pulp Fiction" style of cutting and camera movement, even his characters. Caruso and Gayton introduce us to Parker's hapless sub-Shakespearean gang, complete with their unappetizing plot to steal Bob Hope's stool sample from a hospital.
All of this detracts from neglected central conflicts, however. Sacrificing content for style, Caruso gives us a lot to look at but little to ponder.
"The Salton Sea"
Directed by D.J. Caruso; written by Tony Gayton; photographed Amir M. Mokri; edited by Jim Page; production designed by Tom Southwell; produced by Ken Aguado, Frank Darabont, Eriq La Salle and Butch Robinson. A Warner Bros. release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:43. MPAA rating: R (Strong violence, drug use, language, some sexuality).
Danny Parker - Val Kilmer
Pooh Bear - Vincent D'Onofrio
Kujo - Adam Goldberg
Quincey - Luis Guzman Bobby - Glenn Plummer
Robert K. Elder is a Chicago Tribune Staff Writer.