“I remember once going on a school trip to the top of the Empire State Building. When I looked down at the crowds of people on the street, they looked like ants. I pulled out a penny and some of us started talking about what would happen if I dropped it from up there and it landed on somebody’s head. Of course, I never crossed that line and actually dropped the penny. I don’t think Early Grayce even knew there was a line to cross.”
Kalifornia was never made for a mass audience, at least that’s how it appears to have played out. The film never played on more than 360 screens at one time and pulled in just a little over $2 million. For director Dominic Sena, that doesn’t seem to be much of a surprise. He’s known for releasing disappointing films including the recent Kate Beckinsale flop Whiteout. In fact, the former Janet Jackson video director has only made one film that appears to have taken in more than its budget, that being the Nicolas Cage remake Gone In 60 Seconds. And that film just barely made more than it cost. Some of these films were intended to be money makers. It doesn’t look like Kalifornia was ever conceived in that light. If it was, it was conceived badly. But is it a bad film? Not hardly.
“I’ll never know why Early Grayce became a killer. I don’ know why any of them did. When I looked into his eyes I felt nothing, nothing. That day I learned any one of us is capable of taking another human life. But I also learned there is a difference between us and them: it’s feeling remorse. Dealing with it. Confronting a conscience. Early never did.”
Brian Kessler (Duchovny) has long been fascinated by the mind of the serial killer. He’s written a magazine article on the subject, and it’s gotten him a book deal. Now the advance has been spent, but he finds he doesn’t know enough to really write that book he owes. He decides that he needs much more than book knowledge. Together with his girlfriend and photographer Carrie (Forbes) Brian plans a trip across the country from Pennsylvania to California, making stops at many famous murder sites along the way. To help finance the trip he places an ad on a local college ride board which catches the attention of Early Grayce (Pitt) and his girl Adele (Lewis). What Brian doesn’t know is that he’s about to get more practical insight into the mind of a killer than he had bargained for. Early has just killed his landlord and is jumping parole. This is going to be a memorable cross-country road trip.
“What little I knew about serial killers I learned in a university library. The only thing I knew for certain was that people didn’t kill each other in libraries.”
The film begins very much on a slow burn. We get an idea of Brian and Carrie and the relationship that they have. We also get a peek at the controlling relationship Early has over Adele. When the two couples come together, you’ll expect there to be some fireworks. They do come, but it doesn’t really happen right away. Give Sena credit for some patience here. The film takes its time giving you a chance to really get to know these characters. Sena builds up a ton of anticipation as Early begins to expose the violent parts of his personality. While Brian is supposed to be an expert on killers, he is oddly ignorant of the fact that he’s riding with one who is committing murders right under his nose. It’s the Carrie character that has the bad feeling about Early, while Brian almost appears to be bonding with the guy. Fear not. The expected conflict does finally happen, and it ventures into places that are far from the typical horror or thriller contrivances. The performances are everything here, making this more of a character-study psychological thriller than anything you might be expecting.
Kalifornia was made at a time before Bard Pitt had enjoyed his best success. At the time he was just getting out of the television actor model and starting to explore feature films. The same could be said for his co-star here David Duchovny, who was still years away from what is still the peak of his career as Fox Mulder on The X-Files. Michelle Forbes had only a couple of credits to her name by this time, most notably the recurring Ro character on Star Trek: The Next Generation. So, this was by no means considered an A cast at the time. It would be Sena’s first feature after working on Janet Jackson music videos. Maybe that’s why the film was considered really a festival circuit piece, where it did pick up a couple of awards for its screenplay and “artistic contribution”. It’s too bad that was the path this neat little thriller would take. The film has an atmosphere that could have taken it somewhat further. Now it finally lands on Blu-ray as pretty much a barebones catalog title.
Kalifornia is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC/MPEG-4 codec at an average of about 32 mbps. I’ve blasted a couple of Fox titles of late based on some mastering and DNR issues. This release is a great example of what happens when things are done right. You really get the idea that you’re watching a film here with all of the inherent grain that the medium provides. Still, there’s evidence that the film has been somewhat cleaned so that the high definition presentation offers you the best that the resolution bump can provide without sterilizing every bit of its surface. Colors are very natural with a slight tint of earthy browns and yellows. Detail provides a perfect look at the imagery that Sena has presented us with, particularly in some of these murder scene visits. Black levels are quite solid. This is what watching an older film in high definition should look like. It’s far from perfect, and that’s the point.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 does a good job of setting up some of the atmosphere. It’s not terribly aggressive, and at times it doesn’t quite draw you into the action like I would want a sound presentation to do. Dialog is fine. The score appears to come and go with levels that are at times too soft or too loud. There isn’t much in the way of ambient effects, so you will always be kept somewhat at a distance in this one.
Only a Trailer in HD.
I had only heard about this film before. I had not seen it, nor had I known anyone else who had. I was pleasantly surprised. From many of the descriptions I had read years earlier I expected this to be a Natural Born Killers-style film. It doesn’t take you long to realize it is anything but that. The movie seldom goes over the top, instead aiming for a more subtle thrill more times than not. Unfortunately, most folks don’t have the patience for a piece like this. It’s worth a look, if you’re willing to let it develop. It’s a smart movie that refuses to cater to the lowest common denominator. Which means that it is definitely “not suitable for mass consumption.”