Appropriately enough this movie gets its title from the stinking saltwater lake in California’s Imperial Valley that used to be a popular recreation spot before irrigation runoff poisoned the waters the fish and the community surrounding it. It’s this run-down white-trash desert “destination” that serves as the backdrop for this arty noirish unpleasant film that more than borrows from Memento and Pulp Fiction. Val Kilmer is Danny Parker once a successful jazz trumpeter who wore cool suits and loved his beautiful wife very much. Tragedy strikes when he sees her gunned down in a drug deal and he vows revenge. To that end he adopts a new identity and goes deep–too deep–undercover as an informer for a couple of narcs (Anthony LaPaglia and Doug Hutchison). Danny (now Tom) infiltrates a gang of methamphetamine addicts led by a particularly nasty human specimen known as Pooh-Bear (Vincent D’Onofrio) who has snorted so much crystal he has to wear a plastic nose and reenacts the Kennedy assassination with pigeons just for kicks. In due time Danny completely loses his identity and morphs into Tom becoming into a junkie himself living in a vermin-ridden fleabag apartment and hanging with a bunch of “tweaker” losers like Jimmy “The Fin” (Peter Sarsgaard) while never losing sight of the score he wants to settle.
Val Kilmer’s slippery detached demeanor is just what’s required as his character fatalistically recounts his sad story via voiceover allowing the viewer to tag along with him as he explores what makes Danny/Tom tick. Kilmer seems to do best with character studies rather than action roles (i.e. his Jim Morrison in The Doors versus his parts in big-budget flops like The Saint and Red Planet). Vincent D’Onofrio almost seems like he’s trying to re-create elements of his horribly depraved character in The Cell here. But in that movie it worked; in this one it doesn’t. He’s too out there for a small-time drug dealer and you’re left going “Oh come on already.” Oddly frighteningly this is Val Kilmer’s movie.
This movie tries so hard to capitalize on the sleeper success of Memento but Tony Gayton‘s (Murder by Numbers) script completely lacks that film’s tight originality and creative execution. Director D.J. Caruso tells the story in flashbacks and time shifts that keep you paying attention but which sometimes just confuse. Plus there’s too much emphasis on the secondary characters and their theatrics–it’s just self-indulgent filmmaking. Caruso’s strong suit is that in his belaboring of many points he manages to create an authentically seedy gritty and evocative atmosphere especially making good use of the Salton Sea as a backdrop–both literally and figuratively–in his imagery.