What starts out as a potentially fascinating idea quickly spirals downhill in "Kalifornia," a violent thriller that looks at times more like an extended television commercial than a movie. And why not, it's directed by Dominic Sena, perhaps best known for his Nike ads.
In fact, there are times when the actors here seem to be posing instead of portraying human feelings, and there are places where the screenplay, by Tim Metcalfe ("Revenge of the Nerds," "Iron Maze"), reaches a zenith of silliness that is rare even in Hollywood movies.
But "Kalifornia" is not a Hollywood movie, and it wears its "independence" like a badge of honor. Not that there's anything particularly wrong with that, except that the film contains so many wrong-headed and goofy plot elements that after awhile it's enough to give "independent filmmaking" a bad name.
The plot spins off of the obsession with serial killers held by a pompous yuppie journalist named Brian (David Duchovny). He is convinced such societal misfits are victims of their environment and should be rehabilitated instead of executed or given life in prison.
So he talks his equally snooty "art" photographer girlfriend Carrie (Michelle Forbes) into taking a bizarre cross-country trip to visit the sites of various serial killings. He'll write a book on the subject, while she shoots the pictures. And they will wind up in California, where they want to move.
But Brian decides that due to their bleak financial situation (and their gas-guzzling Lincoln), they need ride-share traveling companions. So, he posts a card on the bulletin board of the university where he teaches.
And wouldn't you know it? The card is answered by the eerily named Early Grayce (Brad Pitt), who is on parole, has just killed his landlord and is looking to get out of the state in a hurry. Along with him is his dirt-dumb girlfriend Adele (Juliette Lewis), who is in many ways just a naive child and completely oblivious to Early's homicidal tendencies.
Without so much as even meeting them, Brian accepts Early by phone. But when they drive to pick up Early and Adele, Carrie gets one look at them and suggests that Brian just keep driving. Unfortunately, Brian proves to be even more naive than Adele. In fact, as the film progresses and he eventually learns the truth about Early, Brian feels more inclined to quiz him and test his theories than run for the hills. It's that kind of movie.
There are moments when "Kalifornia" seems to be on to something, with some chilling exchanges between the four principal characters. But it soon becomes clear that it's really just the powerhouse acting ability of Pitt and especially Lewis, who are excellent at creating characters with depth where none has been written for them. Lewis is particularly good as she manages to make Adele sympathetic and sweet, rather than simply annoying.
Most of the way, however, with its jarring blend of black humor and bloody mayhem, "Kalifornia" simply never gets a foothold on what it wants to say. And the audience is left wondering whether the film really did have something to say about the psyche of a killer, or whether it's nothing more than a cheap-thrills melodrama. The latter seemed most likely to me.
The "K" in the "Kalifornia" misspelling is never explained, by the way. Unless it's simply a way for Brian to make the card he places on the bulletin board more noticeable.
The film is rated R for considerable violence, sex, nudity, profanity and vulgar sexual remarks.