At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Kalifornia “93”

MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Road Thriller/ Stars: Brad Pitt, Juliette Lewis, David Duchovny, Michelle Forbes, James Michael McDougal, Mars Callahan, Brett Rice/ Runtime: 117 minutes

I feel it must be said at the beginning of this review that there are 2 distinct sides to the celebrated actor that is Brad Pitt. There is the pretty boy Brad Pitt think Meet Joe Black, the Ocean’s trilogy, and Troy. Then there is balls-to-the-wall nuts Brad Pitt think Twelve Monkeys, and Snatch. Indeed as a general rule of thumb in his filmography do not ever expect the 2 halves of Pitt to ever come together in a movie (that is unless the film is Fight Club, but I digress). The reason I bring this up to you dear reader is because I can safely say that the movie Kalifornia which we are reviewing today is most certainly one in the latter category. Indeed this is a movie that in addition to being described as a road trip through Hell also has Pitt portraying a heavy-drinking, beard-rocking, country bumpkin psycho and thus giving audiences the most bonkers role he has played to date. Tragically however, this gem has sadly gone quite under the radar since its initial release back in 1993 due to being released the year before another, more infamous serial killer film directed by Oliver Stone. A film known as Natural Born Killers, and which also managed to raise some serious controversy. Not only for its quite potent violence, but also for the fact that it literally feels like a graphic novel brought to life due to the almost gonzo nature of how it was filmed and made. Yet even though the much stylish Kalifornia is significantly more relaxed, it is most definitely not a rip-off as so many people seem to think. In fact I would go so far as to say that if you are wanting to know which one of these two films is more intuitive in regards to the psychology of its characters, then this is the film for you. Indeed, despite a few hiccups along the way, this is one road trip through the heart of madness that is definitely one you should try to hunt down and take a stab at (no pun intended).

The plot is as follows: Kalifornia tells the tale of a man named Brian and his girlfriend Carrie. As the film opens, we learn they are a pair of fairly brilliant people who happen to fall into that distinct category of humanity known as yuppies albeit two that manage to possess some rather distinct and unusual artistic ambitions. Indeed Carrie is a photographer whose specialty seems to be quite dark yet also erotic black and white imagery or as she tells it “the kind of stuff that is too graphic, too overt, and not suitable for mass consumption.” In other words imagine if Christen Grey had a hired photographer for his “Play Room” and you’re on the right track. Meanwhile Brian has his own intriguing aspirations as well. It seems that awhile back he managed to write an intriguing magazine article dealing with that delightful topic known as serial killers, and it managed to net him a pretty sweet book deal. Unfortunately, rather than taking advantage of the clear opportunity right in front of his face, Brian instead chose to blow the advance money on a fancy convertible and in the time since hasn’t really made a whole lot of progress. It isn’t long though before Brian concocts an intriguing idea with Carrie: they should drive cross-country all the way to California and along the way stop at sites where some of the United States’ most infamous homicides occurred and, using his recorded observations about the places and her pictures, finally finish the book. Yet despite being really into the idea, there is one distinct hiccup: they don’t exactly have a boatload of cash on hand and when your car is all style and not economical when it comes to gas consumption that can be a problem. Not willing to let that deter them however, Brian decides to put up an ad on the community bulletin board to see if anyone would be interested in coming along and taking part in a ride share thus splitting the costs down the middle instead of Brian and Carrie footing the bill for everything. To say that virtually no one seems to be interested is not only a mild understatement, but also a tiny lie. I say this because there is only one couple that ultimately answers in the affirmative to the ad. A backwoods couple by the names of Adele and Early who honestly, in Carrie’s words “look like Okies” and have as much culture between them as a cardboard box adrift in the ocean. Yet even though Adele seems nice, in a naïve sort of manner, we quickly pick up on the fact that Early, a recently paroled rough-around-the-edges sort is up to no good. A fact that we pick up on when, the night before they are to meet up with Brian and Carrie and leave, we see Early as he is in the process of digging a giant hole just outside his and Adele’s trailer, a hole that looks eerily like a burial site. However, by the time the cops show up to investigate, Early and Adele are already across the state line with Brian and Carrie who have no idea. Not only that they may in fact have a killer in their midst, but that this road trip is about to become a living nightmare that they never will forget, provided they survive that is……

Now I know you are most likely thinking “wait a minute….isn’t it an enormous coincidence that our main character is an individual who just so happens to be writing about a book about serial killers finds himself riding in a car with a man who just so happens to be a certified killer?”. Well to answer your question: yes. Yes it is. Indeed for the narrative’s central hook to really work on you dear reader, I’m afraid you are just going to have to literally take your disbelief and put it where you can’t get at it until the film is done. Yet once this narrative device is put in place, this is a movie that is quite thrillingly believable as it manages to toy in a subtle manner with the concept of status in society and slowly, but surely raising the tension until things, inevitably, go to hell in a hand basket. Indeed, as the wonderful bourgeoisie liberal woman that she is, Carrie doesn’t really want to act all snooty on the blue-collar people that are sharing the car with her and Brian, but between Early’s severe lack of manners, a gaze that fringes on sexual, and his controlling ways simply make it difficult to do so even though it isn’t about class in the slightest. However Carrie soon comes to see just what a dilemma her and Brian have put themselves in when, during a moment between the two girls, Adele silently confesses to her that Early beats her, “but,” she also quickly and quite fidgety adds, “Only when I deserve it” as if she is afraid of what Early might say or do if he found out just what she was talking about. Yet, as much as Carrie comes to see the nightmare that is rapidly approaching, Brian is completely oblivious to it to the point that he honestly doesn’t understand what Carrie’s big deal is mostly because he, against all odds, finds himself in complete awe of Early and his extremely masculine way of doing things.  Indeed it really is the timeless example of a slightly wimpier artist desiring to be as “legit macho” as an ordinary man in the working class. Suffice it to say then that there truly is some quite subtle pathos-driven material occurring in this film, coupled with a decent amount of brutal and horrific violence. Yet perhaps the movie’s proverbial ace in the hole is in the manner in which it utilizes the narrative trope known as dramatic irony. Indeed we as the audience, and Adele as much as she doesn’t want to admit it, know that Early is a homicidal maniac, but Brian and Carrie do not. Thus, by having our protagonists not know this fact right from the get-go, the film is able to slowly, but surely show just how horrific their situation is. Indeed if, at the beginning of the film, their uncertainty towards Early is a slight ringing in their ears, by the end of the film, that inside “oh crap”-style alarm is now roaring at them like a high speed locomotive. Indeed it is to that end, that the last third of this film seems like it is in a constant state of panic due to the trip becoming a full-blown killing spree. A killing spree which will see our protagonists ultimately finding that they must painfully learn that sometimes if you want to write about something with authority and honesty, you have to witness or experience the thing firsthand.

Tragically, the pure essence of the horror that this film will fill an audience with is slightly undone by a few ingredients that seem a wee bit over-the-top in one way or another. The key one of these would most certainly be the narration done by David Duchovny that pops up throughout the movie, and which really caves in on itself due to slightly pretentious yet supposedly also “philosophical” observations and reflections that are unfortunately quite obvious to the audience thus not really leaving them as much to ponder on throughout the film as they should. Also no disrespect to Juliette Lewis, but she is honestly a degree of irritating as the character of Adele to the point that her portrayal of her feels more like she is checking the boxes of what people think of when they think of a southern simpleton rather than an act. Not to mention the fact that even though this particular character is supposed to be quite childish in nature, Lewis somehow goes past that and oftentimes seems downright infantile much to the patience of the audience. On the other hand, her 3 main co-stars are absolutely wonderful especially Brad Pitt as Early. Indeed he may also walk the very thin line between a persuasive performance and one that is completely crazy, but Pitt is such a talent that even in the moments where he is at his craziest, Pitt still remains obsessively watchable and you cannot deny that it’s clear a lot of thinking and tinkering went into Pitt learning the body language, facial tics/spasms, and oddly charismatic at moments backwoods mannerisms that really help to define his role in this. As for David Duchovny and Michelle Forbes they also do great work in this, but it’s because they act exactly like the characters they are portraying. In other words they do wonderful at portraying a duo of middle class bohemians who think they are edgy and on the fringe of things, but throughout the movie come to learn just how far from the truth that really is.

All in all as said at the beginning of this review, even though it came before the film Natural Born Killers by literally over a year, Kalifornia is nevertheless, and quite often undeservedly referred to as a copycat of that particular film. Yet even though there are most assuredly a few similarities to be found on the surface, for most people it seems to be the fact that Juliette Lewis is in both that tends to be the reason they pair the two films together, Kalifornia is most assuredly a different kind of film altogether. Indeed whereas Natural Born Killers is way more energetic and way more over-the-top in its execution, Kalifornia is a significantly more level-headed affair that also feels more cinematic than its live-action Looney Tune-esque counterpart. Yet even though there are those out there who might throw out the words bland and dull when describing this movie I would just like to point out that any film paired up with Natural Born Killers, save for a few, most certainly would be. Regardless Kalifornia is tragically one of the lesser known films to come from the gauntlet of serial killer films that cropped up in the 1990s, but I promise that, despite a few hiccups, it certainly does warrant a chance to be viewed if only for a compelling narrative, but also for a truly bonkers performance by Brad Pitt. On a scale of 1-5 I give Kalifornia a solid 3.5 out of 5.