Robin’s Underrated Gems: Kalifornia (1993)

Last week, Cracked published a column entitled “5 Artists Who Stopped Sucking Out of Nowhere” that profiled a select group of entertainers who were considered no-talent hacks by many people after their initial success until it suddenly became cool to like them. One of their selections on this list was Brad Pitt and, believe it or not, if you travelled back twenty years and told people that he would still be one of the biggest movie stars in the world in 2012, they probably would have said you were insane. Brad Pitt became a very popular and overexposed heartthrob in the early nineties after he found stardom, but I personally don’t remember knowing one person who admitted to being a Brad Pitt fan back then. Sure, he was enjoying great success with such movies as A River Runs Through It, Legends of the Fall and Interview with the Vampire, but nobody took him seriously as an actor and assumed that he was just coasting by on his good looks. However, Pitt made some very good career choices by starring in such renowned classics as Seven and Fight Club, and surprised everyone by garnering an Academy Award nomination for his memorable performance as a deranged mental patient in 12 Monkeys. However, the Cracked article does not cite Seven, Fight Club and 12 Monkeys as the film where they suddenly realized that Brad Pitt had talent and that it was okay to like him. They mention a very underrated 1993 road movie called Kalifornia where Pitt played the role of a white trash serial killer. When you’ve been voted “The Sexiest Man Alive”, the best way to establish your credibility as an actor is to play the most repugnant, unappealing character imaginable, and that’s exactly what Pitt did in Kalifornia. However, since no one saw the film, Pitt had to wait a few more years to garner any acclaim for his acting skills, but it remains a crucial turning point in his career.

The central protagonist in Kalifornia is Brian Kessler (David Duchovny), a journalist who is working on a book about serial killers, but has developed a major case of writer’s block. Brian and his photographer girlfriend, Carrie (Michelle Forbes) have been wanting to move from Pittsburgh to California for awhile, but cannot afford to make the trip until Brian gets a seemingly inspired idea. Brian and Carrie will travel to California by car and use this opportunity to stop at several infamous murder sites throughout the country where serial killers have committed their crimes, which will provide Brian with the material he needs to finish his book. However, since the couple does not have the funds to pay for gas and all the other expenses of the trip, Brian puts up a ride-share ad on a university bulletin board, hoping to find someone else who is interested in making the trip with him and splitting the costs. The ad winds up drawing the attention of Early Grayce (Brad Pitt), an unemployed parolee who lives in a trailer park with his dim-witted but loyal girlfriend Adele (Juliette Lewis) and is anxious to leave the state. Brian and Carrie are taken aback by the trashy nature of this couple, but since Early was the only one to answer the ad, they agree to take the trip with them. Little do they know that Early murdered his landlord less than an hour before meeting them, and that Brian is going to garner some first-hand experience for his book about serial killers. While Early is almost broke and does not have the money to pay his share of expenses for the trip, he has no qualms about solving this problem by killing a random stranger at a gas station in order to acquire some funds.

Kalifornia could have easily degenerated into a cheap thriller about an innocent couple trying to escape the clutches of a deranged killer, but the movie is a lot more ambitious than that and is interested in examining the psychological profiles of its characters. At the beginning of the film, Brian is a hardcore liberal who believes that serial killers should be studied and analyzed instead of simply being incarcerated in prison or given the death penalty. Despite Carrie’s misgivings about Early, Brian is still fascinated by him and considers it an adrenaline rush when Early gets him involved in a bar fight and teaches him how to fire a gun. However, once Brian is forced to watch Early actually kill people and finds his own life in danger, he realizes that analyzing serial killers isn’t so much fun when you’re in the presence of the real thing. Adele is also a very fascinating character in this equation as she seems to have the mental capacity of a child, which likely stems from a traumatic rape she was forced to experience when she was only 13 years old. Even though Early is abusive towards her, she truly loves and puts up with it because she views him as a protector, but Adele may have to change her outlook once she accepts the fact that he’s a killer and a sociopath. On the surface, these four characters would seem to fit the mould of stereotypes, but none of them are one-dimensional and their interaction together is captivating stuff. Even though the narrative follows the traditional structure of the road movie, you’re never quite sure where it’s going to go next. Although Kalifornia covers some pretty dark and disturbing material, it does have a surprising amount of humour and Early sometimes manages to be both terrifying and funny at the same time. In retrospect, Brad Pitt was the perfect casting choice to play Early Grayce because even though the character is unkempt and repellent and a far cry from Pitt’s heartthrob image, the actor brings enough natural charisma to the role that you can understand how a yuppie like Brian could be seduced by someone like him.

Even though this film was released just on the cusp of David Duchovny finding stardom on The X-Files, he is easily the weak link in this cast. Duchovny is pretty bland and wooden as Brian, and the worst element of the film is probably his unnecessary voice-narration, which is delivered in a monotone that makes Harrison Ford’s narration in Blade Runner sound like a bastion of enthusiasm. Thankfully, Michelle Forbes’ strong work as Carrie is enough to carry their portion of the story and makes up for Duchovny’s deficiencies. It’s quite interesting to see Juliette Lewis in a movie like this one year before her most famous role as Mallory in Natural Born Killers. However, despite similarities in the subject matter of both films, Adele is definitely a much different character than Mallory, and Lewis delivers a convincing performance, managing to find the depth within a very simpleminded person and avoiding the trap of making Adele too annoying for the audience. It’s interesting to note that three years beforehand, Pitt and Lewis had worked together in a made-for-TV movie called Too Young to Die?, which also chronicled the story of a killer dragging his girlfriend along on a murder spree. However, Kalifornia is pretty much Brad Pitt’s film all the way and was the first indication that he was an actor who was willing to dive into a challenging role and not just coast on his looks. Pitt had no qualms about making himself as revolting as possible, and he even went so far as to pay a dentist to have one of his teeth chipped for the role. Unfortunately, despite some good reviews for Pitt’s performance and the film as a whole, Kalifornia was a complete bomb at the box office. Because of the film’s lack of success, director Dominic Sena, who mostly worked in music videos, would not get chance to direct another feature until seven years later when he made Gone in 60 Seconds, and none of his subsequent work (such as this!) has been nearly as good as Kalifornia. While on paper, this may sound pretty standard road movie/serial killer picture, Kalifornia is a lot more intelligent than that and is worth watching for fans of both genres. And, for those actually did bother to watch the film back in 1993, it did indeed represent the moment when Brad Pitt stopped sucking out of nowhere.

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