Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 21, 2019)
At the ripe old age of 27, Brad Pitt enjoyed his cinematic breakout via a small but memorable role in 1991’s Thelma and Louise. Though he followed this with some more traditional “leading man” characters, Pitt demonstrated a willingness to take on more challenging parts via 1993’s Kalifornia.
Brian Kessler (David Duchovny) and his girlfriend Carrie Laughlin (Michelle Forbes) plan to write a book about serial killers. As part of their research, they intend to drive around the US to the sites of these atrocities.
Eager to get help with travel costs and driving, they recruit assistance via a “ride-share”, and this introduces them to Early Grayce (Brad Pitt) and his girlfriend, Adele Corners (Juliette Lewis). This turns into an issue, as ex-con Early comes with his own violent tendencies.
All four of the film’s leads enjoyed good careers after Kalifornia, though Forbes seems like the odd-woman-out. A look at IMDB shows that she’s worked consistently across the last 25 years, but unlike the other three, Forbes never became a genuine star.
Duchovny would earn that status via TV’s X-Files, but his fame existed in the future when he shot Kalifornia. Actually, the movie hit screens precisely one week before X-Files premiered, so the two came out virtually simultaneously, but it took Duchovny a few years to earn true celebrity.
As for the other two, they both seemed on a similar plain circa 1993. Like Pitt, Lewis enjoyed her breakout role in 1991, as Martin Scorsese’s remake of 1962’s Cape Fear earned her success and an Oscar nomination.
Her first and only Oscar nod – as of 2019, at least. While Lewis encountered success in subsequent years, she seemed to peak in the early-mid 90s.
Of course, Pitt turned into by far the biggest star of the bunch. While it’s interesting to view the film through the prism of all four leads’ careers, because Pitt became the only “A-lister” of the gang, it seems most intriguing to see his work and place it in perspective.
As I’ve mentioned in other reviews, I always respected Pitt for his refusal to take the easy path as an actor. With his looks and charisma, he easily could’ve pursued nothing more than “romance novel” style roles ala 1994’s Legends of the Fall.
He didn’t, and Kalifornia shows Pitt’s willingness to pursue unglamorous parts. For someone with obvious leading man appeal, Early offers a radical left turn, as he presents a dark, ugly character.
In theory, at least. In reality, Pitt plays the part with such cornpone, redneck gusto that Early never feels threatening.
Instead, both Early and Adele feel like little more than broad Southern stereotypes. Pitt and Lewis portray the characters in such a Hee-Haw manner that it feels easy to view Kalifornia as satire.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem accurate, as I don’t believe director Dominic Sena intended Kalifornia to offer parody. Sena created dozens of music videos until he made his feature film debut with Kalifornia.
Surprisingly, Sena wouldn’t direct another movie until 2000’s Gone In 60 Seconds, a flashy action flick. That seems like a much better fit for Sena than a seedy thriller like Kalifornia, and that mismatch feels evident as I watch the 1993 movie.
As presented here, it feels like Kalifornia should probably follow a genuinely dark path ala Silence of the Lambs or Pitt’s later classic Se7en. If Kaliforia doesn’t go that way, it should pursue a weirder David Lynch vibe.
Kalifornia occasionally flirts with the latter vein. In addition to the campiness of the Pitt/Lewis performances, we get quirky touches like a parole officer with a hook for a hand.
Heck, Duchovny even appeared in a few episode’s of Lynch’s TV series Twin Peaks. While I don’t love Lynch’s style, I could see it as a fit for this material.
Unfortunately, Sena lacked the ability to give Kalifornia either the darkness or the weirdness that might suit it. Instead, he paints the film as a glossy, superficial piece that never gets to the heart of its material.
Sena robs Kalifornia of any potential impact. Without a convincing tale on display, we fail to invest in the characters or the events.
As such, the movie feels limp and lackluster. Kalifornia might deserve a look as a time capsule of its stars’ early days, but it doesn’t succeed as a movie.