The first clue to "Kalifornia" being about serial killers comes from the title itself. It starts with a "K" rather than a "C." For some reason, I thought of the song by the Eagles, Hotel California…but you'll note there's no "K" in the title. There are a myriad of theories, engouh to fill a Sesame Street song, as to why the movie is named that way: "K" is for Kafka, Kali, or even Klan (as in, the KKK). For me, it stands for "killing" as well as a fairytale land that doesn't really exist. In essence, all the characters fantasize about going to Kalifornia, but the real California is far, far worse.
Fresh off of his Mulder days, David Duchovny stars as Brian Kessler, an author who has pitched himself as an expert on serial killers. Only he's not, and now he has to write the definitive book on the subject. If the name sounds familiar, it's because this is yet another riff on the venerable Rob Ressler, the FBI expert on serial killers. Carrie Laughlin (the delectable Michelle Forbes), Brian's live-in girlfriend and exhibitionist photographer, accompanies him on his journey to California. The idea is to kill two birds with one stone--Brian will visit sites of famous serial murders as they crisscross the country and Carrie will be able to find a better market for her extreme photos.
There's just one problem: they're broke. With a car that gets awful gas mileage, they decide to bring another couple along to save expenses. That couple is the white trash combination of murderous Early Grayce (played with simmering rage by Brad Pitt, in his finest role) and Adele Corners (Juliette Lewis, chewing up the scenery with her naiveté).
On the surface, the plot sounds like a pilot for a comedy sitcom. But Kalifornia is anything but a comedy.
Kalifornia is supposedly about serial killers, but it isn't really interested in delving into the dark mind of the murders. The joke is on us. Kalifornia is really about rich folk and po' folk, playing on all the fears that lurk behind every driver who has ever parked at a truck stop in the middle of nowhere. Early is less a serial killer than a brutal thug, killing those who irritate, annoy, enrage, or inconvenience him. Kalifornia tries to portray Early as one of the monsters Brian is supposedly studying, but we know better-Early is utterly unscrupulous, the basest form of humanity that does what it has to in order to survive.
In the beginning, Early hides his murders. He indoctrinates Brian into the ways of shooting, drinking, and womanizing. Brian almost looks up to Early as a "man's man." Carrie, in the mean time, slowly uncovers just how much of a beast Early really is. And yet her chic photos and fascination with erotica leads to a curious attraction to him. Once she finds out how bad Early really is, that attraction turns to revulsion.
Brian and Carrie have a striking resemblance, in both appearance and mannerisms, to my wife and I, so we watched the film with more interest than it might have warranted (that, and Forbes spends a lot of time in her underwear). But Duchovny has always been a deadpan-delivery kind of guy, and when he appears in the film sporting two earrings…well, let's just say that an extra earring does not a good actor make. Forbes is appropriately snooty and standoffish, sexy and domineering. Lewis plays the mentally deficient hick too well, such that she's borderline irritating. And then there's Pitt.
Pitt is fantastic as a scruffy, steely-eyed wild man, completely untamed and unrestrained in his basest impulses. Pitt's good looks are submerged beneath an explosion of facial hair, but it's his eyes that blaze out from beneath his cap that speak for him. To quote Tombstone, Early "has got a great big hole, right in the middle of himself. And he can never kill enough, or steal enough, or inflict enough pain to ever fill it." But Early's no serial killer. Every time a cell phone rings in a theater (I'm looking at YOU), every time a driver cuts us off on the road, every time someone disrespects the most basic courtesies…when we think, "I'd like to kill that guy," Early doesn't think. He just goes and does it. We all understand his motives too well.
Kalifornia is a little too long, a little too meandering, and a little too contrived. But watching Pit tear up the scenery (literally and figuratively) is worth the price of admission alone.