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.