Ill-fated road trips are a staple of thriller movies. The unsettling creepiness of driving through the middle of nowhere with no one to help if you get in trouble is a relatable situation for anyone whose driven a rural highway. 1993’s Kalifornia stars David Duchovny and Michelle Forbes as a couple who find themselves on a terrifying cross-country journey with a murderous psychopath and his simple-minded girlfriend.
Brian (Duchovny) and his girlfriend Carrie (Forbes) are pretentious artistic types whose careers are stalling. Brian wants to be a writer and Carrie is an aspiring photographer. Carrie takes black and white artistic-erotica pictures that she believes are just too out there for “mass-consumption.” Carrie believes she will have more success in the more open-minded state of California and is constantly pushing Brian to move there. Brian is a writer who doesn’t have anything to write about. He and his friends pontificate endlessly on various subjects, but Brian does not think he has enough real experiences to write about anything all that interesting.
Brian did once write a magazine article about serial killers and that article garnered him a book deal and a small advance. Brian’s article, however, was based on library research, and for his book Brian wants something “real.” Having picked the topic almost at random, Brian does not have a passion for his subject, but he aims to develop one. Brian decides he wants to “experience” what the killers and the victims experienced, and convinces his girlfriend to take a road trip of serial killer murder sites. Carrie can take pictures and he will write the text and the road trip will end in California. It’s a win-win situation.
The catch is Brian spent his entire advance on a convertible that only gets eight miles to the gallon and they cannot afford to make the trip on their own. Brian decides he will advertise for someone to ride along and share the expenses with them. The only takers are Early and Adele, a lowest of the low class couple who are looking to get out of town. The audience knows Early wants to get out of town because he’s an unrepentant murderer. The opening scene of the film shows Early brutally killing a driver and his hitchhiking passenger for a pair of shoes he can give Adele for her birthday. Adele is really a sweetheart but too naïve and uneducated to realize just how bad Early is. The audience knows the road trip is doomed from the start, but that doesn’t take away from Kalifornia’s unsettling slow build to sheer panic and chaos.
As Early, Brad Pitt gives what may be one of his most underrated performances. Pitt is completely uncompromising in the role. Early grunts, slurs his words, and projects a menacing air in every scene. As a viewer you want to scream at everyone to get away from him, but no one does. Carrie and Brian are afraid of acting too snobbish if they judge their passengers by their outward appearance. They are above that sort of thing, or at least they think they are. Brian in particular is fascinated by Early’s “masculinity.” In a perverse way, he even seems to admire Early. Early is not afraid to say whatever comes into his head, or act any way he wants toward people. Eventually Carrie does become wary of Early after learning that Early beats Adele “when she deserves it.”
Juliette Lewis is perfectly cast as Early’s girlfriend Adele. Always smacking her gum and playing with her yo-yo, Adele is childlike in her demeanor. At first it seems as though Adele is just extremely uneducated and a little slow. Carrie finds out, however, that Adele was brutally gang-raped and beaten as a teenager, and was in the hospital for four months. Perhaps Adele suffered brain damage due to her experience, or has been left so traumatized she doesn’t want to think for herself anymore. She believes Early will protect her and to her it’s a fair compromise. Occasional beatings from Early are better than what she endured before. In reality no one would want to spend any amount of time hanging out with Adele and Early. That’s what makes Kalifornia so compelling.
Really, not that many people would also want to spend much time with Brian and Carrie. They are uptight, don’t seem to have any senses of humor, wear black all the time, and basically act as if they are a little too cool for school, all the while harboring serious feelings of self-doubt. When Adele asks them to “show their love” for a photograph they can barely muster the enthusiasm to put their arms around each other. It’s not because they lack feelings for each other, it’s because they are too afraid to show them in public. It’s a stark contrast to Early and Adele. It’s hard to root for Carrie and Brian at first. They are not all that likeable, and you want to yell at them for being so stupid in the first place.
A few days on the road does knock them down a bit. Carrie develops some common sense about their situation, starts to trust her instincts. She realizes that she is better than Early. It’s not because of her phony posturing, or because she thinks she is, it’s because she actually is better than him. Despite her cold exterior she does have compassion and she knows right from wrong. Brian is in denial about Early’s true nature, and even absorbs himself into Early’s world, even brandishing a gun and shooting out the windows of an abandoned warehouse, before reality slaps him in the face.
From that point on Kalifornia escalates to its explosive conclusion. Yes, the ending is no huge surprise (though there is some surprise thrown in), but this movie is more about the ride than the finish. It’s hard to know what the exact point of this movie is. We all know it’s wrong to judge people based on how they look or what their background is, but at what point is it okay to make those kinds of judgments? The audience knows the whole time Early is dangerous, but at what point should Carrie and Brian have figured it out? Should they have driven past the couple when they first saw them at the bus station, as Carrie initially wanted to do? Should it have been when Early pulled a wad of bills out of his pocket to pay for gas, even though he had been broke the day before? Definitely when Carrie finds out Early is abusive, and has been in jail, it’s a big clue to what will happen, but Brian is quick to say people need second chances and the abuse is really none of their business. Who are they to judge?
On the whole, Kalifornia is a compelling story with great performances all around. Kalifornia is often overshadowed by Natural Born Killers, also starring Lewis, which came out the following year. While both movies have some thematic similarities, Kalifornia is more of a character study while Natural Born Killers is more of a social examination.
Kalifornia is presented on Blu-ray with a 1080p/AVC encoded transfer. I thought the picture looked great, particularly in the outdoor scenes. The DTS-HD soundtrack is adequate, but not spectacular. The sound does not give the “you are there” feeling that it should. It would have been nice if it made more use of ambient sound rather than just leaving it in the background. The set offers no special features, except for the original theatrical trailer. The Blu-ray offers only the unrated cut, while the DVD has both the theatrical and unrated versions.