Kalifornia (1993)

Kalifornia is a film about coincidence and about clashing personalities. It isn’t especially good, in large part because of its second half, which drags, but the characters makes it worthwhile. Here, we get together Brad Pitt, Juliette Lewis, David Duchovny and Michelle Forbes, put them in a car, and decide to let their caricatures of characters have at each other for a feature length film. Conflicting personalities and lifestyles are abound, and, eventually, something bloody might happen considering one of these people just so happens to be a serial killer.

That’s not a spoiler, by the way, as Pitt’s character, Early, kills a couple in the film’s opening scene. It’s just that two of the characters — and perhaps Lewis’ doesn’t know it, either, as she’s so blissfully unaware of everything — have no idea that he kills people in his spare time. Presumably, they’d know the signs; after all, they are creating a book about famous killers in American history. Brian (Duchovny) writes and Carrie (Forbes) takes the photographs. They plan a cross-country trip, with the destination being California.

However, they don’t have enough money for gas and lodging, so they decide to post a random flyer advertising a couple of free seats in their car, assuming someone else will split the bill. Here is where Early and Adele (Lewis) come in. They have recently been evicted from their trailer park, and have decided that this will be the best way to get away. Early’s on parole, but when has that ever stopped someone from leaving the State? They don’t actually have any money, but don’t worry: Early has a plan, and yes, it involves murder.

Early won’t be killing either of our well-off characters, though. Not yet, at least. All of these people actually end up bonding a little, despite a slightly rocky start. The scene in which the characters first lay eyes on their counterparts is hilarious — dialogue like “let’s just keep on driving and leave them on the street” is abundant — but for some strange reason, they all end up becoming tentative friends, even though something is slightly off about all of them.

The tender scenes, like when Early and Brian go out to the bar and Adele and Carrie get to paint one another’s nails and talk, are the most interesting. Getting to learn more about each of these people, seeing their similarities and differences, and seeing how disdain turns to understanding — all of that is a lot of fun. These are all entertaining characters filled with depth and complexity, even if they do, at times, border on cliché.

They overcome these clichés because the actors are all very strong, because the writing is solid, and because the story takes a few slightly unexpected turns, ensuring that you won’t always know exactly what’s going on. It’s still not terribly surprising, but there are a few surprises that keep you on your toes. And because all four of the lead actors give their character more than is perhaps deserving, there’s always something to keep an eye out for. Pitt is definitely the star, presenting us more than a white-trash killer, which is what the character starts out as.

When Kalifornia began to lose me was after the inevitable reveal to Brian and Carrie that Early was, in fact, a serial killer. Things just got silly after that point. There was some bloodshed earlier in the film, but nothing that came close to what occurred after all of the characters are aware of the situation. I began to grow tired and wanted a conclusion. The running time, which is just under two hours, doesn’t help much. We could trimmed twenty minutes and had a more effective film.

See, the characters all develop as much as they’re going to before the reveal. Afterward, our touching and tense road movie turns into a fairly generic thriller. The shift in tone isn’t too jarring, but trying to draw it out for almost an hour becomes tiresome. It takes a very sharp screenplay and a lot of talent for that to work, and we don’t quite get it here. Don’t get me wrong: I believe this is a skillfully created film, but I don’t think that the right decision was made in regards to its second half.

It’s almost difficult to look past just how much coincidence is required in order for our story to happen. Two people are researching serial killers. They post a random ad looking for people to ride along with them to California. A serial killer and his victim girlfriend happen to be the ones to find the ad. Just how does that happen? Sure, it would make for one heck of a story, assuming you found out and lived through it, but considering the advertisement was posted at a college and there was no real reason for Early to even be at the college, it’s a stretch.

Kalifornia is a good film, although it’s only really entertaining for its first half. After everyone becomes aware that a serial killer is in the pack, we lose interest and I found my interest waning. The performances and the characters brought out because of these performances held my attention and kept the film watchable. I just wish it maintained the good start that it got off to, or shortened its second half to ensure that it doesn’t feel like it’s dragging on.

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