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‘Kalifornia’ (R)

By Joe Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 03, 1993

Just what we needed now -- another movie glamorizing sadistic serial killers. The feature film debut of music video director Dominic Sena (Janet Jackson, Sting), "Kalifornia" is stylish, soulless violence-porn. A new nadir in nauseating nihilism, worse even than the unnecessary recent remake of "Cape Fear," "Kalifornia" is karefully krafted krap. With a kapital K.

Chic photographer Carrie (Michelle Forbes) isn't having much success peddling her Mapplethorpe knockoffs and wants to relocate to California for a fresh start. Her boyfriend Brian (David Duchovny), a writer fruitlessly casting around for ideas for a new book, comes up with the brilliant idea of a cross-country tour of the sites of the country's most infamous serial murders, which will produce a sensational book and get them both to L.A.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the tracks -- the wrong side -- feral ex-con Early Grayce (Brad Pitt) is thinking about skipping parole with his childlike clueless girlfriend Adele (Juliette Lewis) and hightailing it to California. Early spots Brian's ad for ride-share partners, casually kills his landlord and torches his trailer, and a half-hour later, they're off in Brian's Lincoln convertible. (If you can believe these city slickers would even share a cab with this unspeakable trailer trash twosome, your disbelief-suspension system is working overtime.)

Soon this odd quartet is visiting creepy crime sites: Brian mutters into a tape recorder, apparently channeling the spirits of killers and prey, Carrie snaps grisly crime-scene photos, Early offers his pithy insights into the motivations of serial killers and Adele plays with her yo-yo and chatters to her pet cactus.

Maddeningly naive Brian develops a male bonding thing with Early, playing with guns and getting into barroom brawls, while Carrie, who has an erotic repulsion-attraction to the bestial interloper, starts to pick up Early's tabloid-tawdry back story from pitiable Adele. Too late, though -- Early's already left a trail of bodies behind them, and they're not even near Nevada yet.

Pitt and Lewis go on an acting spree, easily eclipsing Duchovny and Sharon Stone-hard Forbes. Pitt, who played the carnal cowboy in "Thelma and Louise," shows an even darker side as Early, all Mansonesque menace and Axl Rose attitude. Lewis expands on the wanton child-woman she created in "Cape Fear," and digs deeply into her bag of tics, giving Adele a horrifically hilarious spastic laugh and an adolescent gawkiness.

This is great, detailed, full-bodied acting -- it's a pity the roles are so condescendingly conceived by Sena and screenwriter Tim Metcalfe. Fascinated with lowlife squalor, Sena is forever focusing on big bugs, hook hands, belching and toe-picking for cheap laughs and jolts.

"Kalifornia" begs to be compared with "Badlands," Terrence Malick's artful 1973 meditation on a real-life killing spree. Both present a drifting killer, a girlfriend along for the ride, a chain of victims and bleak widescreen Western vistas. But the similarities end there. Like pornography, "Kalifornia" strains to make a case for its own redeeming social value in the form of Brian's portentous voice-over musings on the nature of killers, but it's just tedious twaddle.

If there's anything at all to be learned from "Kalifornia" it's this: Never pick up strangers and always kill the bad guy first chance you get.

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