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‘Kalifornia’ (R)

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 03, 1993

It's hardly surprising that "Kalifornia" looks like a fatal Obsession ad. Director Dominic Sena made his reputation through television commercials and music videos at hipper-than-thou Propaganda Films. Ostensibly a study of the twisted emotional mechanics of a serial killer, Sena's film aspires to be the "Badlands" of the '90s, only to end up romanticizing the banality of evil, thus exploiting it. Like its villain, "Kalifornia" has no moral center.

Hunk Brad Pitt is cast as Early Grayce, a mean-spirited ex-con who could be kissin' cousin to "Cape Fear's" Max Cady -- if it's the kiss of death we're talking about. Grayce lives in the abject squalor of a Pittsburgh junkyard trailer with his waitress girlfriend, Adele Corners (Juliette Lewis in a white-trash role that is despicably hilarious).

Clearly on the right side of the tracks is another couple. Brian (David Duchovny) is a writer fascinated with serial killers who decides that what the world needs now is not love, but a coffee-table book about famous serial slaying sites. His words will accompany photographs by his girlfriend, Carrie (Michelle Forbes), whose portfolio places her squarely in the Helmut Newton-Robert Mapplethorpe camp.

No computer would ever match these couples, but a ride-share notice brings them together; Early's interest clearly is piqued by Brian's gruesome itinerary, built around stops at mostly Southern killing grounds. And so this quartet finds itself on the road in Brian's '61 Lincoln convertible, with only Early aware that he's leaving a trail of bodies behind -- including his landlord, a fellow traveler killed for gas money and a convenience store clerk.

Early is always close to the edge and easily pushed over it, thanks to a bottomless capacity for violence and a total absence of compassion. He's a soulless predator with a snake's capacity to charm, and Pitt manages to overcome his own good looks to invest his scruffy character with a feral frenzy.

The white-bread Brian is initially fascinated by Early's short-fused machismo, particularly after his butt is saved in a biker bar. But Carrie's initial instincts -- to call off the journey -- are gradually confirmed as she gets to know Adele, a classic victim of Early's topsy-turvy morality; he won't allow her to smoke, drink, cuss or wear makeup. He also whips Adele, but, she insists, "only when I deserve it."

When the film was made, Pitt and Lewis were an item; there is a disconcerting Charles Starkweather-Caril Ann Fugate heat between them. But Tim Metcalfe's script burdens Lewis with a white-trash stereotype so extreme that it provoked persistent howls of laughter at a recent screening. For the plainly stupid, visibly bedraggled Adele, every thought and expression is an obvious effort. Kindhearted and cowering, she blocks out the true nature of Early's game until it is too late.

Brian, who acts as the film's narrator, also catches on late and must then uncover something in himself that he has only covered as a writer. This, of course, is a Hollywood convention -- the innocent driven to violence -- or as Early puts it, "You wanna know about it, ya gotta do it." It's even been done on highways before (think "The Hitcher" or even "Thelma & Louise"). The problem is that neither director Sena nor scriptwriter Metcalfe offers any worthwhile insights.

Additionally, the movie is so beautifully filmed by Bojan Bazelli, and so skillfully edited, that its art house surface belies its exploitation content, making this a trip through a cool world rather than a cruel one. These highways slice through an austere heartland of dusty towns -- like those commercials in which Hicksville is redeemed by the arrival of a dream-fulfilling beer truck. How appropriate, then, that "Kalifornia" ends at the Dreamland Nuclear Test Range, where all moral codes are finally cracked.

"Kalifornia" is rated R for violence and profanity.

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