Just so you'll feel somewhat smart, The Salton Sea features a little bit of nonlinear narrative--just enough to bring Quentin Tarantino or Guy Ritchie to mind, though the dialogue (courtesy of scribe Tony Gayton, of the vastly inferior Murder By Numbers) thankfully eschews silly pop-culture regurgitation.
We open with Val Kilmer, playing a protagonist named either Tom or Danny, sitting and playing a trumpet in a room full of burning money. Though he appears to be doomed, Tom/Danny (let's call him Tom for simplicity's sake) is kind enough to impart to us, via inner monologue and stock footage both real and simulated, the complete history of crystal meth, beginning in midcentury Japan, where it apparently caused both the kamikaze-pilot phenomenon and Japan's failure to surrender after one atomic bomb.
Once the history lesson has returned us, more or less, to the present day just prior to the flaming dinero, we learn that Tom's life had become consumed by meth addiction--"the land of the perpetual night party." How he manages to make a living isn't clear, though, since he seems to rapidly inhale any profit that could be derived from the drug deals he brokers. What is soon revealed--and this is the first of several revelations to come--is that Tom is actually in the service of two rather dubious undercover cops (Anthony LaPaglia and Doug Hutchison) who, when not zapping Tom with a taser simply because they feel like it, are using him to nab bigger fish as part of his plea bargain.
Among the biggest of the fish to be nabbed is Pooh Bear (Vincent D'Onofrio, with volume cranked to 11), a Palmdale redneck who lost his nose to meth addiction and enjoys restaging the JFK assassination using pigeons and a remote-control truck. That is, when he's not eating brains or feeding an informant's genitalia to a wild badger. Almost as extreme is Bobby Ocean (Glenn Plummer), who smothers his girlfriend between mattresses while spraying insecticide at imaginary spiders and firing off a speargun at random. By contrast, a bizarre Asian cowboy named Bubba (B.D. Wong) seems downright normal.
Tom's attempting to broker a big deal between Bubba and Pooh Bear, but he has his own agenda. His wife was murdered near the Salton Sea, and his current path is one designed to bring him closer to revenge in ways it would be unfair to reveal here. And if that sounds like enough plot to throw at an audience, consider this: Gayton and first-time feature director D.J. Caruso also toss into the pot a battered spouse (Deborah Kara Unger) who lives across the hall from Tom, as well as a whole host of junkie-losers our "hero" hangs with, one of whom plans an elaborate heist (which we see speculatively played out in faux-Soderbergh style) to lift a Bob Hope stool sample and sell it on eBay. There's also best friend Jimmy the Finn (Peter Sarsgaard), who sports a mullet from hell and drives a car with large rust holes in the floor. He's none too bright, this Jimmy, but he's loyal. When Tom asks him how you know if you're doing the right thing, he responds, "People around you are happy. They say 'thank you' and stuff."
The whole shebang is going to be a love-it-or-hate-it affair, depending on whether the ongoing display of deranged caricatures amuses or proves to be too much (in addition to the above, veteran character actors Danny Trejo, Luis Guzmán and R. Lee Ermey are all in there somewhere). Those hoping for a serious look at the problem of addiction, which is where the movie initially appears to be headed, may find their sensibilities offended by the likes of the preteen gun dealer played for comic relief, or D'Onofrio's constant wheezing.
As a gallery of the grotesque, however, the cinematic equivalent of a Joe Coleman painting or Adam Parfrey publication, The Salton Sea is a blast. It could have been even edgier than it is--the occasional nonlinear scenes indicate an ambition that's all too tentative at this point. For a debut feature, though, and a big "mainstream" one at that, it marks Caruso as a director to watch.