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Brian Kessler, a journalist researching serial killers, and his photographer girlfriend Carrie set out on a cross-country tour of the sites of the killings. Sharing the ride and their expenses are Early Grayce, a paroled white trash criminal, and his girlfriend Adele. As the trip progresses, Early begins to appear more and more unstable, and Brian and Carrie begin to fear that they may have a real-life killer in the back seat of their car.
For more about Kalifornia and the Kalifornia Blu-ray release, see Kalifornia Blu-ray Review published by Casey Broadwater on August 5, 2010 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.5 out of 5.
Starring: David Duchovny, Michelle Forbes, Brad Pitt, Juliette Lewis
Director: Dominic Sena
» See full cast & crew
Kalifornia Blu-ray Review
The K is for Killer.
Reviewed by Casey Broadwater, August 5, 2010
There's pretty boy Brad Pitt—A River Runs Through It, Legends of the Fall, Ocean's 11—and there's bug-nuts insane Brad Pitt—True Romance, Twelve Monkeys, Snatch—and never the twain shall meet. (Okay, they touch briefly in Fight Club.) Kalifornia, a serial killer/road-trip gone bad movie from 1993, definitely falls into the latter category, as Pitt plays a bearded, hard-drinking, rural hayseed psychopath, giving perhaps the most out there performance of his career. Unfortunately, Kalifornia often slips into the shadow of that other serial killer/road movie from the early 1990s, Oliver Stone's brilliantly depraved Natural Born Killers, which stirred up a hornet's nest of controversy for its nihilistic violence and hyperkinetic, almost gonzo style of filmmaking. In comparison, the glossier Kalifornia is relatively tame, but it's no mere knock-off. (It actually appeared in theaters a full year before Natural Born Killers.) I'd venture to say that Kalifornia is actually the more psychologically insightful of the two films, even if its ultimate conclusion is that it's impossible to have real insight into the mind of a killer.
Brian (David Duchovny) and his girlfriend Carrie (Michelle Forbes) are intelligent yuppies with artistic ambitions. She's a photographer who specializes in darkly erotic black and white images, the kind of stuff, she tells Brian, that's "too graphic, too overt, not suitable for mass consumption." He has his dark fascinations as well. After writing a four-page magazine article on serial killers, a publisher gave him a book deal, but he blew the advance on a convertible and hasn't gotten much writing done. He hatches a plan: they'll drive cross-country, to California, stopping at the sites of some of America's most famous murders. "I think we got a book here, with your pictures and my writing," he tells Carrie. What he doesn't expect is that it's going to be a first person narrative based on their own experiences.
Strapped for cash, he posts a bulletin board ad asking if anyone would be interested in a ride share, splitting the gas costs down the middle. The only response comes from a slack-jawed, white-trash couple who "look like Okies" and are about as cultured as a pair of moon rocks. Adele (Juliette Lewis) is sweet enough—in a naive, jailbait kind of way—but we know that her abusive boyfriend, Early Grayce (Brad Pitt), a rough-and-tumble parolee, is up to no good. The night before they leave on the trip, we see Early digging an enormous hole outside their trailer, a hole that looks conspicuously like a grave. And sure enough, by the time the police show up—finding the trailer burned down and the landlord's body loosely covered up in the hole—Early and Adele are already across the state line with Brian and Carrie, who are unaware they have a killer in the backseat.
So, you're probably thinking, "isn't it a massive coincidence that a guy who just so happens to be writing a book about serial killers just so happens to be unknowingly sharing a ride with a bonafide murderer?" And yes, for this central plot point, you're going to have to suspend your disbelief. But once this machination is set in place, the film is often harrowingly believable, playing subtly with social status and slowly ratcheting up the tension until the inevitable snap. As a good bourgeoisie liberal, Carrie doesn't want to look down on their blue-collar car-mates, but Early's crass table manners, leering sexual gaze, and obsessive controlling nature goes beyond a simple class distinction. Carrie realizes there's a real potential problem when Adele confesses that Early whips her, "but," she quickly adds, "only when I deserve it." (As Adele is telling Carrie this, we intercut to Early stabbing a traveler to death in a gas station restroom, less than 50 feet away.) Brian, on the other hand, doesn't see what the big deal is; he's blinded by admiration for Early's uber-masculine attitude. It's a classic case of the somewhat effeminate artist wishing he could be as authentically macho as the common working-class man. (For more examples, see Hemingway, or guys in indie bands growing enormous beards and wearing lumberjack shirts.)
There's some nuanced emotional stuff going on here, along with a fair share of grisly violence, but the film's greatest success is the way it uses dramatic irony—we know Early is a killer, Brian and Carrie don't—to slowly reveal the direness of the situation to our hapless yuppie protagonists. If, at the beginning, their doubts are a mild beeping, by the end, their internal oh shit alarm is screaming like a teakettle on high boil. The last act of the film runs in a constant state of fever- pitched suspense as the road trip becomes a murder spree and Brian learns the hard way that to write truthfully about something you have to experience it firsthand.
Unfortunately, the purity of the film's terror is undermined by a few elements that seem overdone, namely David Duchovny's voiceover narration, which crops up at various times throughout the film and sags under leaden "philosophical" statements that are as over-obvious as they are trite. ("That day, I learned any one of us is capable of taking another human life," he says, "but I also learned there is a difference between us and them: it's feeling remorse. Dealing with it. Confronting a conscience. Early never did.") Juliette Lewis is also mildly annoying as Adele, playing her like a stereotype of a southern simpleton. The character is supposed to be childish, but Lewis goes outright infantile. Pitt likewise straddles the line between convincing and over-the-top, but even when he's at his most crazed, he's compulsively watchable and there's no denying that a lot of thought went into the body language, facial tics, and backwoods charisma that define his performance. As for Duchovny and Forbes, they seem exactly like they're supposed to—middle class artists who think they're edgy but come to find that they really aren't.
Kalifornia Blu-ray, Video Quality
MGM brings Kalifornia to Blu-ray with a 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer that doesn't seem to be overly tampered with. The image here looks entirely natural—film grain is apparent, edge enhancement is absent, and there's been no unnecessary boosting or excess filtering. Overall clarity isn't the strongest—not compared to more modern films—but the sharpness is completely in keeping with other catalog titles from the early 1990s. While the look is a little soft, especially in mid-to-long- range shots, close-ups still display an appreciable amount of fine detail and texture, like the splatters of mud on Brad Pitt's chest as he digs a grave. The film has a warm, almost amber cast, and colors are nicely saturated, especially during the outdoor daytime scenes. Skin tones look a bit ruddy on occasion, but this seems more like a product of lighting than post-production color tweaking. Black levels are deep and contrast is balanced, with ample shadow detail and a decent sense of depth. The print is clean aside from some mild color fluctuations in sky blues, and there aren't any compression quirks as far as I could tell. Fans should enjoy the film's new high definition look.
Kalifornia Blu-ray, Audio Quality
The film's newly minted DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track is capable, but not quite as immersive as it could've been. Take the opening scene in the rain, for instance. You'd expect the downpour to be panned into the rear channels, effectively making you feel like you're sitting in the middle of the storm, but you'll hardly hear anything from the surround speakers. This is a trait that keeps ups throughout the film. There are moments when you expect a big cross-channel effect or some atmospheric ambience, but it just never happens. When the rear speakers do pipe up, they do so quietly, with softly blowing wind, buzzing crickets, or barroom chatter. Carter Burwell's score comes and goes as well, not making much of an impression, but it sounds okay, and the action that takes place up front at least has clarity and occasionally forceful dynamic presence. The key element to the mix is the dialogue, which is perfectly balanced and always intelligible. Subtitles are available in an impressive array of languages.
Kalifornia Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
The sole special feature included on the disc is a theatrical trailer (1080p, 2:29).
Also note that while the front of the Blu-ray case says "Includes both the theatrical version and unrated version of the film," only the unrated cut is present on the Blu-ray disc. On the included DVD, however, you'll find both cuts of the film.
Kalifornia Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Preceding Natural Born Killers by a year, Kalifornia is often unjustly called a copycat film. While there are definitely surface similarities—the presence of Juliette Lewis in both tends to conjoin to the two movies in people's brains—Kalifornia is a different beast altogether. Where Oliver Stone's film is hyperkinetic and visually intense, Kalifornia is more balanced and classically cinematic. (Some might say dull, but next to NBK, nearly everything is.) It's one of the less remembered entries from the upswing in serial killer movies during the 1990s, but it deserves to be seen, if only for Brad Pitt's insane performance. Tech specs on this Blu-ray are strong, so aside from a lack of bonus features, I see no reason for fans not to pick this one up.
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