Excitement, adventure...and unimaginable terror await on the road to Kalifornia. "Brad Pitt is outstanding" (Rolling Stone) and "Juliette Lewis is utterly, heartbreakingly convincing" (Boxoffice) in this chilling psychological thriller co-starring David Duchovny and Michelle Forbes.
When urban intellectuals Brian (Duchovny) and Carrie (Forbes) set out on a cross-country trip to research a book about serial killers, they share the ride with a couple they barely know -- Early Grayce (Pitt) and his girlfriend Adele (Lewis). Locked in a car hurtling westward, the four travelers struggle to find some common ground. But when they finally do connect, Early's violent nature abruptly emerges, and the terrified Brian and Carrie realize that they don't need to go very far to learn about ruthless killers...because they're already face to face with one!
"What's the difference between a killer and any one of us?"
A simple enough question, one that has been analyzed to death, from all angles. What drives a man (or woman, though they are less frequent in these cases) to murder again and again? Are they wired differently in their brain? Can they simply be categorized with the simplistic nature vs nurture argument? Does the current mainstream media encourage these killers by sensationalizing their exploits?
With Dominic Sena's 'Kalifornia,' four characters journey the road less traveled, concerning the taking of lives, as a journalist and photographer attempt to chronicle the scenes of many famous American slaughters. We have the straight laced working couple (David Duchovny and Michelle Forbes as Brian and Carrie, respectively), and a low rent, low class pair (Bradd Pitt and Juliette Lewis as Early and Adele), with unknown intentions along for the ride. Fate may have brought them together for their cross-country road trip, but the past will rip them apart in ways that can only be described as ironic.
'Kalifornia,' released in 1993, feels like an amalgamation of two films that followed it in release, 2000's 'Shadow of the Vampire,' and 1994's 'Natural Born Killers,' with themes shockingly similar to both, though executed with less efficiency. The themes of controlled anarchy, killing with no repentance and no rationale, and fighting against the invisible system, definitely pre-date's Oliver Stone's classic, and the similarities may not seem too obvious. That said, there is more than a striking resemblance to E. Elias Merhige's vampire tale. Those chronicling killers wind up with a serial killer in their very laps.
The fun in 'Kalifornia' comes from everything Pitt, as he truly shines around otherwise average performances. His portrayal of white trash psychopathic rage is over-the-top in a way that would make Nicholas Cage jealous. We don't need flashbacks to see what made the man who and what he is, and thankfully, we don't even find out exactly why he is so capable of murder. A paroled woman-beating, hygiene-challenged, uneducated man, with no obvious sense of right or wrong, Early Grayce is a proper characterization of a serial killer, without the "voices in his head," or other Hollywood gimmicks that make killers look more psychopathic than average, normal folk, which is what truly makes them dangerous.
Duchovny is in an awkward man-child state, captured forever on film, playing the role of an adult who just doesn't look the part. His narration to the film, meant to parallel his note taking on his journey, may be hammy, and far too contrived to be believable, which can pull the viewer right out of the moment, up until he discovers the truth about his riding partners. Forbes may have wowed audiences with her portrayal of Maryann Forrester in 'True Blood,' but she's anything but convincing here, an unnecessary fourth wheel that exists only for Early to leer at and objectify. Combining Brian and Carrie wouldn't have been too hard, especially if the end result were female, to keep the awkward nature of the relationship between Early and any woman other than Adele. Lewis is appreciable, but her performance as a whole feels like a walk through for 'Natural Born Killers.' The way in which she acts in denial of the entire situation makes the character great, though when push comes to shove, the character and the performance can be a bit too much for my taste.
Sure, as a Californian, it's humorous to watch a film full of the glorified pipe dream misconceptions about the state from those who only see the state from what they see in the movies. It's also fun to see a topic I truly enjoy (the fascination with and sensationalism of serial killers) portrayed with such love, instead of just dismissing the minority as nothing more than psychopathic and inhuman. 'Kalifornia' could have been something special, with a few tweaks here and there (including the removal of the very awkwardly placed sex scenes), but as is, it's still a very enjoyable, almost realistic film, that wraps up every important plot point and provides an enjoyable escapist experience. You don't have to be a serial killer to enjoy this film, but you do have to give it a fair shake and not dismiss the characters due to their actions.
The Disc: Vital Stats
MGM brings 'Kalifornia' to Blu-ray on a Region A/B/C (though the packaging only indicates Region A. I can confirm through my Region B player that this disc is not locked) BD50 disc, housed in a standard Elite eco-case. There are two cuts of the film, and this release only contains one of them, despite what the cover art says, the unrated edition. The theatrical version of the film can be found on the second disc, which is the MGM flipper DVD.
The differences between cuts mostly lies in the handling of the sex scenes, with the extended cut getting more graphic sexuality. That isn't a good thing, as the sex scenes are completely unbelievable and are far from sexy, including positions that are humanly impossible...unless Duchovny is packing a yardstick down there. Literally.
MGM's release of 'Kalifornia' boasts a very solid 1080p AVC MPEG-4 encode that for the most part beguiles its age.
Blacks are super inky and can be endlessly deep, though shadow detail is hit or miss. Skin tones are all over the place, but colors are otherwise bold, accurate, and quite striking, including gorgeous dripping red blood. Detail levels are almost superb, with no real softness except for the shots of Duchovny in the coverage shots in the run down diner in the Chinese food scene. Grain levels are intact throughout, never distracting, though dirt and debris can spike at times. This transfer isn't perfect, though, as ringing can be hard to miss, and noise can pop up from time to time.
It has to be noted that the film, which is in its natural 2.35:1 aspect ratio, has some shots that feel very awkwardly framed, leaving massive amounts of negative space above the picture, while areas where there is activity going on beneath the shot are removed. Hardcore fans of the film may want to see the 1.33:1 version of the film, included in the bonus DVD on this release, just to see what all else is going on, minor as it may be, wrong as it may be. I hate viewing films in their incorrect aspect ratio, but 'Kalifornia' just feels wrong at times, even when it's correct.
'Kalifornia' here we come, with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix that is more a sign of the film's age than anything else (save Duchovny's appearance). This is a film from the early '90's, when thunder didn't often have bass thump, just treble, when the only elements hitting the rears consistently were the soundtrack or score. The nuclear test site scenes have great ambience through the blowing winds, and the score has a few light bumps, but other than those elements, the entire film is a front-heavy, non-bassy affair. We get a few volumes spikes, some solid range and above average clarity. The party scene that introduces ol' Fox Mulder is wrecked with awkward mixing, as pouring drinks and background music combine to overpower the majority of the dialogue. All in all, this one doesn't sound bad by any means, and is limited by its source and age.
The DVD release of 'Kalifornia' wasn't all that loaded, so the fact that the Blu-ray is skimped isn't exactly a crime.
'Kalifornia' isn't a perfect film, but it's still perfectly entertaing, with Brad Pitt stealing scenes left and right with his most over-the-top performance to date, even more zany than his award nominated turn in '12 Monkeys.' The film tackles serial killers in a way that doesn't feel preachy or forced, allowing audiences to pick who to root for, rather than being spoon fed an opinion. With very good video and solid audio, this release overcomes the lack of extras that has always troubled this film. Give this one a chance, if you haven't already, or even revisit it for the first time in years. It's still quite enjoyable after all these years.