When Jackie Brown was released, a critic for Entertainment Weekly described it as "watching Pulp Fiction from behind bulletproof glass". You could make the same analogy between Kalifornia and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Actually, that's not true at all. Kalifornia is like watching Henry from a subterranean fallout shelter on the other side of the world. It's a movie that could have been good, but it was neutered somewhere along the way. Actually, it may not be that the film has no balls, but rather that it has no ambition. It could have been a fascinating character study, but it ends up becoming a mess of clichés and lost opportunity.
Brian Kessler (David Duchovny) is a writer working on a book about serial killers. His girlfriend Carrie (Michelle Forbes) is providing the photos, but to finish the book they're going to have to embark on cross country road trip and see some of the most infamous murder sites first hand. However, the one thing standing in their way is a lack of funds. They're going to need another couple to come along and split the costs of their trip to California. Enter Early (Brad Pitt) and Adele (Juliette Lewis), a poor redneck couple looking to start a new life on the West coast. Adele is a girl who seems to be in an arrested state of development and Early is an ex con with a sinister secret. What's the secret? Early is a serial killer who is paying for his half of the trip through murder and theft. David soon finds himself facing a case study he might not walk away from.
Kalifornia was a product of the serial killer mania that was sweeping the nation in the early to mid 90's. It may have seemed fresh and exciting at the time, but now it's dated and cliché. The movie got very favorable reviews back in 1993, but I wonder what kind of reaction it would get now. I'd hazard to guess that half those reviewers don't even remember that they even saw the film. Such is the fate of many films that simply follow a trend rather than try to do something new with the genre.
To be fair, there's nothing wrong with the film's execution. Everything was technically done well and first time director Dominic Sena showed that he could tell a story well. After this film he disappeared for a while and resurfaced with Gone in 60 Seconds and Swordfish. Not exactly what you'd expect after seeing this film, but I guess it works for him.
As much as I disliked this film, it did have a few interesting touches. The film has some interesting bits like the fact Early's parole officer only has one hand. It makes for an interesting visual, but the odd things like this are few and far between and seem to be strange for the sake of being strange. There were a number of scenes that had the potential to be good, but were held back by the conservative nature of the film and/or bad acting. For example, at one point Early has Bryan at gunpoint and tells him that he will be killed if he doesn't shoot an innocent man. This could have been a powerful moment, but the ending is a cop out.
The acting isn't what I'd call horrible, but it's not good by any stretch of the imagination. Many people find David Duchovny to be a dull actor, but I thought he did a decent job. He's essentially playing his Fox Mulder character from the X-Files, only a little more naive. On the other hand, he reads his voiceovers with the emotion of a guy who just came out of a coma. Michelle Forbes' performance is solid, but rather unspectacular. It's almost the same character she played in Swimming with Sharks, but that's fine by me.
Brad Pitt's portrayal of Early is completely over the top, but not in a good, Al Pacino way. He's a cartoon character with an annoying accent that keeps the audience at a distance. I look at this film and I'm stunned that he' turned in to a decent actor in recent years. As bad as he is, Juliette Lewis gives an extremely annoying performance as the youthful, inexperienced Adelle. We're supposed to feel sorry for her, but she has the most grating voice in recent memory. I usually think she's a fine actress, but her performance spoils at least 2 potentially chilling scenes.
The film wants to be a deep character study, but it studies the wrong characters. It looks at how the normal characters react to a serial killer, but the audience is filled with normal people. We don't need Bryan's boring voiceovers to tell us what we're supposed to think. If the film had any guts, it would have followed Early's path of rage. Plus, the only thing the survivors of the film learn is that "We all have the potential to kill, but the sane feel remorse". Call me crazy, but I don't think it should take 2 hours to get to this conclusion.