It’s Hot as Hell this month at Nightmare on Film Street and with that comes a host of seasonal fare. Along with laying out in the sun and socially distant backyard barbecues, there’s a particular brand of restlessness that floats in on the breeze during the dog days of summer. With the sun’s rays, tangible and oppressive on the skin, simple outings become taxing. Comfort becomes elusive and stagnation of both spirit and mind often result. Like a mid-summer thunderstorm, a general sense of unease becomes coupled with the hope and release of cooling, cleansing rain.
It’s a complicated, deep-seeded feeling and it’s one that a handful of movies are adept at tapping into. Director Dominic Sena’s Kalifornia is without a doubt one of those films. Led by the smokin’ hot Brad Pitt and his incredible performance as Early Grayce, Kalifornia uniquely embodies this unsettling seasonal aura in a variety of complex ways. Transcending simple narrative function, Early challenges our societal attraction to dark and violent material while simultaneously providing one hell of a cinematic ride.
“Displaying his chops with shocking effect, Pitt simultaneously exhibits his undeniable star power and just how easily killers can hide in plain sight. “
Executed like a dusty sun-soaked semi-noir with a Tony Scott pallette, 1993’s Kalifornia tells the tale of two very different couples on a fateful summer road trip to where else, but California. Brian (pre-X-Files David Duchovny) and Carrie (Michelle Forbes) are a young, ambitiously artsy couple. While Brian is a writer fascinated by true crime, serial killers and their psychology, Carrie is a talented photographer who pushes boundaries and explores taboos through sensual and seductive subject matter. After obtaining a book deal on the subject, Brian agrees to move to California with Carrie in exchange for stops and photos at famous murder sites along the way. Although the subject is one Carrie does not fully endorse, she agrees in an exchange of mutual support.
A long and expensive journey in a 1963 Lincoln Continental, Brian hangs up a flier at the local college seeking ride-share companions in an effort to cut expenses. While hoping for a couple of young intellectuals, Brian and Carrie end up instead with their polar opposites; Early (Brad Pitt) and his trauma riddled girlfriend Adele (Juliette Lewis). While Early‘s dark propensity towards violence is never hidden from us as the audience, the way Early‘s story unfolds, especially in relation to his travel companions, is where Kalifornia‘s true strength lies.
Chosen specifically and deliberately by the up-and-coming Pitt to showcase his range, Early is an easily dislikeable ex-con with a thick southern drawl who lives in abject poverty with the innocent Adele. Clearly chosen and targeted by Early for her submissive attitude, blissful ignorance, and deep-seeded issues related to past trauma, Adele provides him with the secure performative relationship he craves while fueling his need for both physical and mental dominance. Raised by hate (his dad a member of the KKK) his favorite hat boasts a confederate flag and he wears it with intent. Early is crass, aggressive, misogynistic and his demeanor can turn on a dime.
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Both manipulative and apathetic, Early’s morally corrupt attitude exhibits attributes that register on both the sociopath and psychopath scale. After losing yet another job and murdering his landlord to avoid paying rent, he uses Brian‘s coincidental offer to sell Adele on the idea of California. Skipping town illegally and leaving a wake of destruction behind him, Early‘s final blood-stained spiral into self-destruction officially begins.
“Chosen specifically and deliberately by the up-and-coming Pitt to showcase his range, Early is an easily dislikeable ex-con…”
Once the foursome venture out on their journey from Kentucky to California, we as the audience take on a unique voyeuristic role in Early’s story. It is certainly no secret how popular the genre of true crime is with the public and it is an interest many of us can relate to. Much like the genre of horror films in general, there’s a cathartic release in the idea of exploring a terrifying scenario and a killer’s mindset from a place of safety. By attempting to understand a killer’s mindset, a bit of the terrifying veneer begins to peel from the facade. As we watch Brian engaging in ‘ghoulish’ behavior visiting old crime scenes, snapping pictures, and listening to taped pleas of long-dead victims in an effort to understand past motivations, we sit similarly entranced knowing there’s a killer in his own back seat.
As the ride continues we enthusiastically watch as Brian, like us, succumbs to Early’s aura. The mutual exchange of interest between Brian and Early, Early and us, originates from similar motivations. In an effort to practice the open-minded, understanding attitude that he preaches, Brian innocently and inadvertently feeds Early‘s need for attention and validation. Countering, Early validates Brian‘s interest with the macabre by simply listening and conversing with him on the subject. Ironically unaware of Early‘s true self, the tentative friendship between the two sparks emotions deeply hidden in both. However, Kalifornia suggests that the problem with sparks is how easily they can develop into full-fledged flames.
Acting in contrast to Brian throughout the film stands Carrie. Divergent from Early‘s opinion of what a woman should be and how a woman should act, Early quickly becomes threatened by Carrie, her sexuality and her disapproval of him. Further aggravating Early is Carrie‘s understandable immunity to his special brand of…charm. Shooting piercing gazes and demeaning remarks at every opportunity, the feeling between Carrie and Early quickly becomes hostile and mutual. Hesitant from the beginning, Carrie increasingly urges Brian to ditch the duo as she picks up on Early‘s behaviors rubbing off on Brian, but to no avail.
Just as Brian acts as a stand-in for those fascinated by the darker aspects of humanity, Carrie stands as devil’s advocate. Similar to the way she approaches societal views towards sexuality with her photography, Carrie’s pragmatic view of Early presents an unsettling potential reality. Perhaps, there is no real meaning, no deep motivation behind Early’s actions. Perhaps there is nothing to learn after all and, in reality, he is simply a person who enjoys killing and using it as practical means to an end.
“For the first time in his career, Pitt the actor dissolved into the background of a character. Gone are the stunning good looks and shy-boy charm.”
While Early’s story is most certainly engaging and almost guiltily fascinating, the successful execution of his character by Brad Pitt cannot be undersold. At the time a young, but quickly rising star in Hollywood, Pitt was well aware of his potential to be typecast as simply a pretty face. So rather than simply going with the Hollywood machine flow, he fought back with Early.
Well, I was very conscious when I did Kalifornia. It’s kind of a B-film, but it was important for me. I was going against the things I was getting at the time. I got to do character work in it, and there’s humor laid in there, too. For me in the 90s, there was this strict imprint of what a leading man was. It felt limiting. So what I’m pinpointing with Kalifornia is a moment in which you can tell yourself that the box is bigger than the one you’re being defined in. -Brad Pitt to the New York Times
For the first time in his career, Pitt the actor dissolved into the background of a character. Gone are the stunning good looks and shy-boy charm. Instead, they become completely replaced with Early’s palpable smell, hocking snort, horrific grammar and simmering terror lurking just beneath the surface. It’s a performance that provokes both audience and cast alike while highlighting Brian’s beige normality and Adele’s heartbreaking innocence. Displaying his chops with shocking effect, Pitt simultaneously exhibits his undeniable star power and just how easily killers can hide in plain sight.
By walking Early’s path so expertly and so effectively throughout the film, it makes his end all the more uniquely unsettling and conflicting. After all attempts at facade have been dropped and the shades on Early’s true identity have forever and effectively been thrown open, we accept that his end will be bloody and valid. As the sirens wail in the background implying impending authoritarian resolve, there’s a moment for Brian and us to pause and debate pulling the literal and figurative trigger on Early’s fate. And then, like a rush of cool air from an inadvertently cracked window, a strange chill occurs when our darkest desires indeed unfold on screen.
Allowing us to follow Early throughout the film, Kalifornia thrives in providing a uniquely dark and haunting voyeuristic opportunity. There’s so very little to like about Early and he offers up minimal redeeming qualities to gain our favor. He’s an uncharacteristically awful leading character and yet, the allure of how he will react, who he will harm is transfixing and enthralling. Early has no true arc, no definitive turning point or any real show of remorse. Like a tumbleweed, blowing across the desert, he picks up only speed and dead brush as he goes. But it is through this unflinchingly dark character that Kalifornia succeeds, holding a cracked mirror up to society and asking us point blank if we like what we see.
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