Brad Pitt - Early Grayce
David Duchovny - Brian Kessler
Michelle Forbes - Carrie Laughlin
Juliette Lewis - Adele Corners
Genre - Thrillers/Drama/Serial Killers
Running Time - 117 Minutes
Brian Kessler (David Duchovny) is a journalist who is obsessed with the world of serial killers. His more level-headed girlfriend, Carrie Laughlin (Michelle Forbes), is persuaded to take a road trip with Brian to California through Arkansas and Texas in order to visit the places of famous American murders for a book he's writing and wants Carrie to take photos of these locations.
Being a genius, Brian decides to place an ad about this adventurous research for people to join them and share expenses, such as hotel, food, and gas. The ad is quickly answered by Early Grayce (Brad Pitt), a former convict, and his dim-witted girlfriend Adele Corners (Juliette Lewis). While Brian is fascinated by their white trash behavior, Carrie is turned off and sees the two as a threat. Slowly Brian realizes Carrie's right, as Early proves himself to be a serial killer - wanting to be Brian's next story.
- The acting. If there's anything this underrated film will be known for, it's the fantastic acting by the four leads. David Duchovny, before his X-Files fame as Fox Mulder, does well as the naive yuppie journalist who realizes his obsession with serial killing could cost him either his own humanity and/or his life. Michelle Forbes, who has done some memorable television work since this film, is also great as the cool and cautious girlfriend. In a lot of ways, she is the conscience and voice of the audience. But the film belongs to both Brad Pitt and Juliette Lewis. Lewis, who would become another serial killer girlfriend in NATURAL BORN KILLERS almost a year after KALIFORNIA, is amazing to watch as an empty-headed woman. She first comes across as funny, but as the film rolls on, we realize how tragic she is and feel sorry for her when she discusses how Early beats her only "when she deserves it" and how Early saved her after being raped. I know some found the performance annoying, but I was pretty captivated by Lewis. More so, however, with Pitt - who really used this film to prove that he was more than just a pretty face in Hollywood. He looks like crap, probably didn't shower at all while filming this movie, and gives a complex performance that proves the man can act with the best of them. He's charming one minute and then pretty creepy the next. Just an exceptional performance. Great cast.
- The direction. Dominic Sena would later do more mainstream movies like 2000's GONE IN SIXTY SECONDS, SWORDFISH, and SEASON OF THE WITCH, but KALIFORNIA is his best work. Along with cinematographer Bojan Bazelli, the two men capture a gritty, striking, and beautiful film. The locations used are just fantastic - from deserts, to rural homes, to beaches, and even to nuclear test ranges - the images are just stunning and become a character itself. I also thought Sena brought out some nice tension, especially during scenes where Early would kill like in the gas station bathroom and inside the store. Nice editing, composition, framing - just great filmmaking visually. Definitely Sena's finest hour.
- The story. While it's not perfect, the screenplay by Tim Metcalfe is still well-written and well-structured. The characters are all different and have quite a bit of depth to them. Brian sees the good in everyone, which is why he's fascinated by serial killers and their motives. Why do they do what they do? This naivety almost destroys him at the end, but it's an interesting journey. Plus his conclusion at the end is pretty profound. Carrie is the viewer's character, wondering why she has participated in this whole deal and realizes she and Brian need to get out fast before they end up dead. While a bit tough at the beginning, we see her grow close to Adele, almost becoming a mother figure to her. She also captures the eye of Early, who sees her as a strong woman he wants to break down rather than a dumb little girl like Adele. Early is the typical serial killer - charming and friendly at first to lure people in, but once you get to know him, he ends up a total psychopath, scary and dangerous. All four of these characters together create a lot of drama and tension between them, crafting a solid narrative. Plus the journey each character takes for their respective arcs are both interesting and tragic. It also makes you question those who kill and the other side who are fascinated by it through books and media. KALIFORNIA never glorifies the violence, but it does make you wonder how desensitized one must be to realize when too far is just that.
- The setup. It's just too easy and convenient for me. Brian puts up an ad and just happens to be answered by a serial killer, especially when Brian wants to write a book on serial killers [which isn't on the ad itself]? It's such an obvious plot device and doesn't really make the story feel natural. What are the odds of that really happening? Sure, it's possible. But on the first try? I'm not sure how else these characters could have been brought together, but the whole idea just seemed odd from the get go.
- Brian's narration. While the narration itself isn't bad, it takes away from what's being shown onscreen. As Brian tells us about the events, the surprise and some of the suspense is missing because we pretty much know how it's gonna play out. I think the film could have worked without it. If Brian was already telling this story right from the start of the film, I can guess who survived and who didn't. Takes away some of the effectiveness, in my opinion.
THE FINAL HOWL
KALIFORNIA was a box-office flop and a film not many people have seen, even today, but it's definitely a solid thriller that deserves an audience. It has a well-structured narrative, beautiful visuals, and fantastic acting - especially by Brad Pitt. A lot of people will compare KALIFORNIA to NATURAL BORN KILLERS [which came out a year later], but both take the general idea but present it differently. I think NATURAL BORN KILLERS is more about glorifying the violence. KALIFORNIA is more about the humans behind the violence. Which ever film you choose, you can't go wrong. But KALIFORNIA is well worth the long ride seeing if you're in the mood for it.
3.5 Howls Outta 4