It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
"The Salton Sea" is a lowlife black comedy drawing inspiration from "Memento," "Pulp Fiction" and those trendy British thrillers about drug lads. It contains one element of startling originality: its bad guy, nicknamed Pooh-Bear and played by Vincent D'Onofrio in a great weird demented giggle of a performance; imagine a Batman villain cycled through the hallucinations of "Requiem for a Dream." The movie opens with what looks like a crash at the intersection of film and noir: Val Kilmer sits on the floor and plays a trumpet, surrounded by cash, photos and flames. He narrates the film, and makes a laundry list of biblical figures (Judas, the Prodigal Son) he can be compared with. As we learn about the murder of his wife and the destruction of his life, I was also reminded of Job.
Kilmer plays Danny Parker, also known as Tom Van Allen; his double identity spans a life in which he is both a jazz musician and a meth middleman, doing speed himself, inhabiting the dangerous world of speed freaks ("tweakers") and acting as an undercover agent for the cops. His life is so arduous we wonder, not for the first time, why people go to such extraordinary efforts to get and use the drugs that make them so unhappy. He doesn't use to get high, but to get from low back to bearable.
The plot involves the usual assortment of lowlifes, scum, killers, bodyguards, dealers, pathetic women, two-timing cops and strung-out addicts, all employing Tarantinian dialogue about the flotsam of consumer society (you'd be surprised to learn what you might find under Bob Hope on eBay). Towering over them, like a bloated float in a nightmarish Thanksgiving Day parade, is Pooh-Bear, a drug dealer who lives in a fortified retreat in the desert and brags about the guy who shorted him $11 and got his head clamped in a vise while his brains were removed with a handsaw.
D'Onofrio is a gifted actor and his character performances have ranged from Orson Welles to Abbie Hoffman to the twisted killer with the bizarre murder devices in "The Cell." Nothing he has done quite approaches Pooh-Bear, an overweight good ol' boy who uses his folksy accent to explain novel ways of punishing the disloyal, such as having their genitals eaten off by a rabid badger. He comes by his nickname because cocaine abuse has destroyed his nose, and he wears a little plastic job that makes him look like Pooh.