The SmarK DVD Rant for Kalifornia (Blu Ray)

“Looks like I’m gonna have to kill you, Walter. How you feel about that?”

“Um, not so good.”

Kalifornia – not to be confused with Californication, of course.

This Blu-ray is part of MGM’s rapidly failing efforts not to go bankrupt, as they release as much of their catalog in budget Blu form as they can, presumably to drum up enough cash to finance another Bond film and save the studio. But that’s OK, because the original DVD was pretty crappy, and is even included as a bonus with this one!

Kalifornia stars David Duchovny at the height of his X-Files celebrity as Brian, a bleeding-heart liberal writer (in stark contrast to his later role as Hank Moody) who owes his publisher a book on serial killers. The main problem is that he doesn’t actually know anything about serial killers outside of what he’s read in the university’s library. So he and pretentious photographer girlfriend Carrie (Michelle Forbes) embark on a road trip to California, planning to hit historic murder sites along the way. Irony then strikes as they split the cost of the trip with actual serial killer Early Grayce (Brad Pitt at his most white trash) and child-like girlfriend Adele (Juliette Lewis, as Juliette Lewis). Duchovny is the focus of the movie and assumed hero of the thing, but of course it’s the magnetic performance of Brad Pitt that drives everything. Veering wildly between horror movie villain (graphically murdering a gas station patron) and dark comic relief, Pitt has a huge movie star presence that makes it easy to see why he became the star he is now.

Really, though, this is a much more fascinating movie than the setup would seem to suggest. Rather than two uptight good people trying to escape from crazed killers, the movie takes things in the unexpected direction. Brian, who fancies himself to be “above” the violence of the serial killers he’s studying, develops a voyeuristic fascination of the paranoid bad boy Early. Because let’s face it, he’d be a pretty cool guy to hang out with as long as he’s on your side. When Brian and Early go on a trip to the bar, Early beats an abrasive drunk half to death, and Brian seems almost flattered that his new friend is willing to defend his honor. Clearly Brian is well aware of the dangerous animal he’s sharing a car with, but he’s just as fascinated and charmed by his own personal serial killer as the victims he’s studying were. Carrie constantly berates their traveling companions for being broke, but the whole reason for the shared road trip is that they’re just as broke.

Of course, Early and Adele can only conceal their true nature behind white trash charm so long, and soon enough things turn into a hostage situation, albeit one where Brian and Early are still bonding despite their own best efforts not to. Obviously Early is a psychopathic murderer, but Brian is drawn to the once-in-a-lifetime chance to actually interview a killer and get into his head. Unfortunately the movie’s big problem is that it doesn’t really offer any more insight into Early’s mindset than Brian himself is able to get. I guess if you’re really looking for a window into the mind of a serial killer, you should add Natural Born Killers to your study list. Which is to take nothing away from this movie, a rather brilliant case of “be careful what you wish for,” showing what happens when supposed good people learn what lurks in the real world. Carrie thinks herself better than the perpetually shellshocked Adele, but when put into the same situation with Early, she regresses into a passive role just as easily as Adele does. Brian thinks of himself as the intellectual better of Early, but with a gun to his head he seems to be ready to shoot an innocent police officer in the heat of the moment. I mean, he wanted to learn about murder, didn’t he? For all his education, he was fooled by Early’s facade just as easily as anyone in his book was, and he was also ready to resort to violence to solve the situation, just as Early himself was. You’d hope that he learned his lesson, at least, and checked the credentials of any future road trip companions a bit better.

Highly recommended.

Audio and Video

Considering the original DVD was a double-sided non-anamorphic piece of crap that has been sitting in bargain bins ever since its release, this is a 1000% upgrade in quality. Now we get a beautiful widescreen transfer and DTS soundtrack. The film is mostly dialogue, but the few effects moments (mostly dealing with Early’s firearms) sound fine, and there’s some good usage of the surrounds. Nothing to blow you away, but it’s a 15 year old movie anyway. Clearly if you’ve got a Blu-ray player, this is the way to go over the original DVD release.

Bonus Features

The movie itself is the unrated version, running about two minutes longer and featuring a bit more graphic violence than the theatrical cut, and there’s a trailer. Oh, and you get a copy of the original DVD as well, as MGM tries to clear out their warehouse, I’m guessing. This is pretty bargain-basement stuff, which is kind of a shame because I was hoping for some more insight into the movie given that I enjoyed it so much.

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