Director: Dominic Sena
Screenplay: Tim Metcalfe (story by Stephen Levy & Tim Metcalfe)
Stars: Brad Pitt (Early Grayce), Juliette Lewis (Adele Corners), David Duchovny (Brian Kessler), Michelle Forbes (Carrie Laughlin),John Zarchen (Peter), David Rose (Eric), Judson Vaughn (Parole Officer)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1993
Country: U.S.
Kalifornia Blu-Ray
KaliforniaOver the past few decades, particularly in the era immediately following The Silence of the Lambs (1991), popular conceptions of evil have often been embodied in the serial killer, a term that was coined in the mid-1970s by FBI special agent Robert Ressler. The 1990s was awash in mainstream movies about serial killers: Natural Born Killers (1994), Copycat (1995), Seven (1997), Kiss the Girls (1997), Summer of Sam (1999), American Psycho (2000), just to name a few, which suggests that beneath America’s skin at the end of the 20th century was a festering rash of fear about criminal violence and still unanswered questions about its connection to the nature of evil.

Dominic Sena’s Kalifornia is a fascinating film in this regard, as it positions criminal violence as a natural extension of evil and also works as a metafilm that is as much about the process of watching movies as it is about its surface narrative. Within the narrative itself, Kaliforniaoffers a conservative, even reactionary critique of the intellectualization of criminality by positing violence as natural, unavoidable, and beyond rational understanding, thus rendering impotent any attempt to explain murder through psychological, medical, or social causation. At the same time, by foregrounding the means by which spectators consume criminal violence from a presumed safe distance through entertainment, Kalifornia offers a self-reflexive critique of violence as entertaining spectacle.

Written by Tim Metcalfe (Bones), Kalifornia takes the form of a road movie. Brian (David Duchovny) is a liberal-minded magazine writer who has a book deal based on an article he wrote about serial killers. He and his girlfriend, Carrie (Michelle Forbes), an aspiring photographer whose work resembles Robert Mapplethorpe’s, decide to move cross-country from Kentucky to California, stopping at famous (fictional) murder sites along the way for Brian to research and Carrie to photograph. Because they are short on cash, they put up a ride-share note at the local university to share expenses. The note is answered by Early Grayce (Brad Pitt) and his childlike girlfriend, Adele (Juliette Lewis), stereotypical trailer trash whose rough, unseemly ways (embodied in their heavy Southern accents) immediately clash with Brian and Carrie’s black-leather, intellectual-yuppie pretensions. However, what Brian and Carrie don’t realize before they get in the car with Early and Adele for a weeklong ride is that Early is a remorseless killer. Thus, Brian’s research into the psyche of murder inadvertently brings him face-to-face with the real thing.

From its opening scenes, Kalifornia makes an explicit link between Brian (civilized) and Early (barbaric), thus making problematic a simple separation of good and evil. Brian is the film’s conventional hero--his is the point of view through which the action is seen, and it is his voice that provides the explanatory voice-over narration throughout the film. Yet, he and Early are inextricably linked, which underscores the eventual transformation of Brian’s liberal, humanist views on criminality into a more hardened understanding of evil. In this way, Kaliforniais much like Death Wish (1974), another ultra-conservative film about criminality that traces the main character’s movement across the spectrum from sympathizing softie to steeled vigilante. While Brian does not become a vigilante per se, both he and Carrie are forced to realize their own potentials for violence in order to survive the ordeal of being with Early.

Like Natural Born Killers, a more widely known (and infamous) film that was released a year later, Kalifornia is a violent film that is also about violence. While the bloodletting in the film is fairly explicit at several points, it is not merely for the purposes of titillation. Instead, the violence plays an active role in the film’s larger critique of serial violence as entertainment. Brian and Carrie, who are in the process of writing a book about serial killers, are both producers and consumers of violent, criminal spectacle as entertainment. Thus, they are implicated in the production machine that churns out hundreds, if not thousands, of books, films, TV shows, and articles every year that focus on criminality as a subject to enthrall others. Yet, at the same time, they are very much consumers of their own production. Brian’s fascination with a violent criminality he has never experienced very much mirrors the desire of most cinema-goers who pay to see violent horror films and crime dramas. The excitement is in witnessing or vicariously experiencing the spectacle of something horrible that does not exist in the spectator’s everyday life. In this respect, Brad Pitt’s performance is crucial, and he rips into the character with a frightening sense of unhinged egomania, violently subverting the Redford-lite pretty-boy image with which so many wanted to associate him, especially in the wake of Thelma and Louise (1991) and A River Runs Through It (1992).

What Kalifornia ultimately says about the vicarious pleasure of cinematic violence is that it is a dangerous road because, at any moment, that violence might become a reality; the tables can always be turned; criminal violence cannot be contained on a screen. Because violence is posited in the film’s narrative as a universal capacity, something that is within the reach of everyone, this critique becomes even more explicit: Not only is the spectator constantly in danger of being acted on violently, but he or she may one day need to resort to such violence him- or herself. Thus, the film’s position of the universal potential for evil is intertwined with its metanarrative about violence as entertainment: Violence can never be fully reduced to mere flickerings of light on a screen because it is too real, too common, and, most importantly, too universal to be denied embodiment forever.

Kalifornia Blu-Ray + DVD 2-Disc Combo Pack
This two-disc set includes both an unrated version of the film and the original theatrical version.
Aspect Ratio2.35:1
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • French DTS 5.1 surround
  • SubtitlesEnglish, French, Spanish
    SupplementsTheatrical trailer
    DistributorMetro-Goldwyn-Mayer / 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
    Release DateAugust 3, 2010

    Making its debut in high-definition, Kalifornia looks very good in MGM’s new 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer. Dominic Sena’s highly stylized film benefits greatly from the increased resolution, better detail, and stronger colors in both the darker sequences, such as the opening, which takes place at night in a rainstorm, and the bright, hot daytime sequences. The image maintains a natural, filmlike appearance with a slight presence of grain and a blessed lack of edge enhancement or other artificial boosting. The lossless DTS-HD 5.1-channel surround soundtrack is appropriately immersive, with good reproduction of the dialogue and sound effects and a fair amount of rear-channel action to draw you into the film.
    The only supplement is the original theatrical trailer in standard-def on the DVD.

    Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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