Reviews of Val Kilmer in The Salton Sea & Wonderland

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/6/04


  Val Kilmer is both one of the best film actors going & one of the most disappointing. In films such as The Doors, Tombstone, & The Salton Sea he shows a depth of character insight rare amongst contemporary actors, yet in films like Heat, Batman, & Wonderland it seems that 1 or 2 little things separate his performances from being great and plunge them into the terrible category.

  Recently I watched DVDs of 2 of the latest films in the Kilmer canon- his portrayal of a man on a mission in The Salton Sea & his portrayal of porno king Johnny ‘Wadd’ Holmes in Wonderland. Both films attempt to be modern noir films, & in both films Kilmer plays a character that has 2 sides to his persona. In The Salton Sea he portrays a dual character Danny Parker/Tom Van Allen. The former is a crystal meth dealer & the latter a jazzman. The film is a stylistic masterpiece that is every bit the equal of the far more lauded Memento- a similar story about a troubled man searching for himself & the truth to his wife’s death. Kilmer sinks into the role of Tom, as an avenging husband whose wife was brutally killed by 2 gunmen near the Salton Sea. Tom decides to become Danny, & work with 2 crooked undercover cops (Doug Hutchison and Anthony LaPaglia) to expose the drug cartel he believes is responsible for his wife. Along the way he encounters 1 of the great modern onscreen personifications of evil- a drug dealer named Pooh-Bear (Vincent D’Onofrio) who wears a fake nosepiece because his real nose was burnt off by cocaine use. Along with Daniel Day Lewis’s Bill the Butcher in Gangs Of New York, Pooh-Bear is one of those cartoony villains that nevertheless seems to be just real enough to lift the whole of the story beyond standard noir. The real forces Tom contends against in the film are almost surreal as the cinematography & Danny’s hallucinations. Pooh-Bear’s idea of fun is eating brains, staging the JFK assassination with pigeons and a mini-car set, & threatening Danny with having his gonads eaten by a badger.

  Director D.J. Caruso and screenwriter Tony Gayton do a fine job of creating a world that Kilmer’s dual personae feel right at home with. He seems to die several times, only to wake up back in his hell. The film is shot surreally, with low angles, frames just off-center, & flashbacks & dreams that happen in odd places- even in the barrel of a pistol. But what lifts this film to true greatness, like Memento, is Kilmer’s performance. His blend of fear, weariness, ballsiness, & bravado echoes back to his work in The Doors, yet surpasses it because this character is his total creation, not a recitation of a real figure.

  Perhaps that fact is also what, in part, makes his portrayal of the lead character Wonderland, a lesser achievement. Granted, the other aspects of this film are not nearly on par with The Salton Sea either. This film is about the quadruple murder that porno star John Holmes (Kilmer) was involved with. It uses the old Rashomon technique of telling the tale from differing perspectives, yet this tale is just not that interesting. The basic story is that as Holmes’ porno career wound down he got involved with some lowlife drug dealers & thieves. They decided to make a big score by hitting up LA vice honcho Eddie Nash (Eric Bogosian) & robbing him of over a million dollars. Holmes sets up the score, but then is pissed over being given too small a cut in the robbery. Nash suspects Holmes’ involvement & threatens his family with death unless he tells him who robbed him. Holmes rats out his pals Ron Launius (Josh Lucas), David Lind (Dylan McDermott) & Billy Deverell (Tim Blake Nelson). Only Lind survives the revenge that kills 2 women, & he finks out Holmes’ part in the murders. The film exists to show us both Lind’s & Holmes’ versions.

  The problem is that neither man evokes any sympathy for both were scumbags and born liars, and the victims were so slimy their deaths meant little. Lind claims Holmes set them up and that he just ‘went along’ on the heist of Nash, whole Holmes claims he was forced to betray his pals and also participate in the murders, on Nash’s orders. Aside from Lind being a creep the actor who plays him (McDermott) is just way out of his league. He’s every bit as stiff as the crusading lawyer character he played on the tv show The Practice. Kilmer’s a far better actor but in both versions of the tale his character is so wimpily written that, well- who cares? There are some scenes involving his wife Sharon Holmes (Lisa Kudrow) and underaged girlfriend Dawn Schiller (Kate Bosworth), that could have displayed more of what made Johnny Wadd tick- such as his underlying anger, but the film never goes there. The most interesting part of Homes’ was his youth & what drove him into porno, then crime, not whether or not he was an active participant in the murders. While the film does not explore that the bonus documentary DVD disc WADD does. Wonderland is not a bad film, nor is Kilmer’s performance bad, but it’s just a paint-by-numbers portrait of the ultimate nonconformist character. It’s much like the film Auto-Focus- another paint-by-numbers film on a 70s icon, porno, and murder, when it needed to be more like George Clooney’s Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind, a film driven by character development, not plot devices.

  While both the Danny/Tom and Holmes characters are losers, drug abusers, whiners, and liars Wonderland lacks the script and style of The Salton Sea, and ultimately Kilmer can do nothing to elevate the film. In short, Kilmer is not in the league of a Robert De Niro or Orson Welles as an actor who can be great in less-than-great films and roles. He is wholly dependent upon the clay he is given- he’s not an alchemical artist, merely a craftsman. This is not to say that his work in The Doors or The Salton Sea is not excellent, it is, but he is an actor that interprets, not one that creates. This is why he is disappointing. If one were only to watch him at his best it would be easy to put him in a class as De Niro, or even D’Onofrio. But, compare his work as Johnny Wadd with a lesser De Niro vehicles- such as the Cape Fear remake by Martin Scorsese.

  That film, like Wonderland, is a mediocrity with a poorly written central character, as well. But De Niro’s performance as Max Cady, which could easily have gone over the top, is the only thing that raises that trite thriller up to mediocrity. Kilmer’s Holmes does not elicit sympathy nor disdain, even when he pimps his girlfriend Dawn to Nash, and later physically abuses her. Yet, the scene where De Niro tries to seduce Juliette Lewis’s character still creeps a viewer out even as the written dialogue seems absurd. THAT’S the difference!

  To use a more contemporaneous actor, looking at Guy Pearce from Memento shows the difference- as well. In Memento and The Salton Sea, both actors shine, but compare them in lesser vehicles like The Time Machine and The Saint. Pearce makes his character somewhat sympathetic & a viewer almost empathizes with the hero of the unbelievable tale. Yet, in The Saint, Kilmer lacks the suavity of Roger Moore’s tv original, and the role almost descends to parody with Simon Templar as a Lon Chaney wannabe. He becomes a cartoon figure where Pearce’s character retains its integrity. This is why Kilmer has to be selective in roles and films he chooses- he has a limited range and only when a role niches in that role can his greatness shine. This is not so much a criticism as a recognition, for Kilmer- as an actor- is like the 3 Bears’ porridge. When he’s in his range he’s good- and he’s very, very good, but when he’s not he’s, well- a cool, tasteless grain-type cereal.

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the 10/04 Hackwriters website.]

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