Monday, February 08, 2010

Gritty February analysis: The Salton Sea (2002)

The Salton Sea: it seems like the whole world missed this movie. Seeing it this weekend as part of Gritty February (seriously, it had "gritty" in the Netflix description), I found it full of questions and interesting angles. I also found it strangely disjointed... a movie that's not really about what it's about, that seems to miss its own point, and whose greatest strength seems to be in its unnecessary details. But like always, I thought about it some more, and it's become clear to me why I liked it.

Our first scene is a glimpse into an apocalyptic neo-noir world, a framing narrative of burning money and jazz music. This story vanishes almost immediately. You can forget about it for a while, but you can't lose it entirely. It should stay in your mental notepad, dog-eared so you can come back to it when it's called upon.

Now, we're dropped into another film, a hyperactive little story of a tweaker named Danny Parker. Danny is a familiar character, a non-conformist who's so confident that he seems to have the upper hand in every situation, even when everything else is out of control. He's also a snitch and a traitor whose only redeeming quality seems to be his dishonesty.

If Danny's over-edited, wacky drug world seems like a cheap knock-off of Trainspotting, at least it's got some interesting characters. Danny's best friend Jimmy the Finn, played by Peter Sarsgaard, is sad and beautiful, the antithesis of Danny, the man of intrigue. Jimmy may be strung out, but he's painfully honest and loving (in a bromance kind of way). His tattoo of his best friend might be creepy, if it wasn't so unselfconsciously loyal.

And let's not forget the other major player in Danny Parker's story, Pooh-Bear... a towering performance by Vincent D'Onofrio... whose shadow looms over Danny's whole world of tweaking, selling, and selling out. He's terrifyingly unpredictable, but calculated enough to be ruthless. His house is filled with things that don't make much sense, the errata of someone who can't keep his thoughts together... pigeons and a pillbox hat, a badger, scrambled eggs... but as you get to know the man, you realize something: these are all strange accessories to his cruelty, the little totems of violence that he's fetishized.

Make no mistake, Danny has a real story. It doesn't seem as fleshed out as a good drug story should be, and the difficult consequences of short-sightedness isn't interrogated. Even so, he's a convincing character, and his supporting cast is intriguing. In this story, he's a snitch for Gus and Al, two sneaky narcotics agents who may be a bit opportunistic, but who at least offer Danny this opportunity to be dishonestly moral, and to rat out his suppliers and get some of the meth and speed off the streets.

But then, as we sit through Danny's narrative, we get to see another story bleed through. This is the framing story of Tom Van Allen, a broken and distraught saxophonist whose life is imprinted on Danny Parker's back in a tattoo that says "The Salton Sea." And at the crucial structural moment of the film, we discover something important, the detail that justifies the existence and interaction of two half-formed storylines: we discover that Danny's story is fake, an adopted world and a constructed narrative, created to erase and overwrite that sad story that Tom Van Allen was supposed to tell. And suddenly, all the elements take on a new meaning. You just zoom out one level, and you get to see an unfamiliar landscape.

In Tom Van Allen's story, Jimmy and Pooh-Bear aren't important characters... they're just extras. For Jimmy, this is especially sad: he's an important character in a side-story, a loyal friend to a guy who doesn't really exist, except as a Macguffin for Tom Van Allen's revenge. More importantly, in Tom Van Allen's story, Gus isn't an ally... he's an enemy, the corrupt cop who interrupted a blossoming love. And for Tom Van Allen, the drugs that Danny finds so important are hardly note-worthy. They're just a distracting justification for the existence of a paper doll, the instrument of a minor betrayal that's ultimately in service of a greater one.

Betrayal: this is, of course, the factor that links Danny and Tom, the fake second personality and the real, but effaced, source character. Danny uses betrayal to get close to Gus, and Gus and Al think they're experts in using it to their advantage. However, what makes Danny such a powerful tool, and Tom Van Allen such a guru, is his mastery of betrayal. He's the meta-snitch, the best rat in the sewer, and he's ready to use "betrayal" as a weapon against the men who killed his lover. His deception works on so many levels, it can't be contained: he convinces the tweakers that he's a junkie, and he convinces the corrupt cops that he's a snitch; he even convinces Internal Affairs that he's on their side, when in the end, he's just using them to get into a well-guarded house and pull a gun out from under a table.

As I said, Danny's story doesn't just accompany Tom Van Allen's story – it erases it, replacing it with a fake-out hallucinogenic haze of freaks and self-indulgence. For this reason, Danny's story isn't that well-developed... but neither is Tom's story, which only glows a little in the cracks. Tom's story has been erased by a fantasy of revenge, built on layers of betrayal, and ultimately, these stories come together and destroy one another.

This destruction comes in Danny's apartment, which is actually Tom's apartment, where his identity has been sequestered away in a little box. It doesn't come from the poetic gesture of suicide... rather, Tom/Danny's death is at the hands of another side-character, one of the victims of Danny's snitching and Tom's moral self-righteousness. The perpetrator is a violent addict, a karmic weapon that brings Danny/Tom's betrayal back to kill him. This burning apartment is a place where lies and deception self-destruct, and destroy the truth in the process. Appropriately, it is only Danny's "true friend," the trace of his compassion and honesty, that appears as an angel of mercy.

It's a beautiful detail that this Tom/Danny character, who finally becomes nameless, is saved by his best friend from his inauthentic inner narrative. Jimmy the Finn is a fantastic foil for the violent, vengeful, and deceptive hero we've been following through his framing narratives. I don't think this final moment is the key to the film, though. I think the key moment in the film is that first scene, where everything burns around Tom Van Allen, and the framing narrative is watching itself be destroyed.

And ultimately, DJ Caruso, Val Kilmer, and Vincent D'Onofrio have made a movie that I won't forget.

Grittiness rating: 8

A drug movie plus a neo-noir framing narrative, with a cool-cat protagonist and one of the creepiest, most ruthless side-characters in movies. This film screams "story of the streets," and yet... it's a little too disjointed, a little too conceptual, to compete with the real killers of the genre. Sometimes its dirty aesthetic becomes a little too stylized, and because of its postmodern tendencies, it looks a little artificial. Even so, it deserves its place in the month of grittiness, and I'll defend it to the end.


.. said...

this is my favorite movie, great description!

sandy said...

Just watched! Can't believe I've never come across it before now. Feel like I need to watch it again on purpose instead of just catching it by accident tonight. Awesome movie!