The Salton Sea (2002 film)

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The Salton Sea
Salton sea poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by D. J. Caruso
Produced by Frank Darabont
Eriq La Salle
Ken Aguado
Butch Robinson
Written by Tony Gayton
Starring Val Kilmer
Vincent D'Onofrio
Adam Goldberg
Luis Guzmán
Doug Hutchison
Anthony LaPaglia
Glenn Plummer
Peter Sarsgaard
Deborah Kara Unger
Chandra West
B.D. Wong
Music by Thomas Newman
Cinematography Amir Mokri
Edited byJim Page
Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures
Release date
  • April 26, 2002 (2002-04-26)
Running time
103 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$18 million [1]
Box office$1 million [2]

The Salton Sea is a 2002 American neo-noir crime thriller film directed by D. J. Caruso and starring Val Kilmer and Vincent D'Onofrio.


The film was shot on location in Los Angeles, at LA Center Studios, and the Salton Sea. [3]


While playing the trumpet in a burning room, the protagonist's voice is heard in narration. His story begins with him posing as "Danny Parker", a speed freak addicted to methamphetamine, who hangs out with friends while indulging in drugs. He also moonlights as an informant for two corrupt cops, Gus Morgan and Al Garcetti. He is trying to set up a large meth score with notorious drug dealer Pooh Bear, an eccentric psychopath who lost his nose to excessive snorting of "Gak" (meth), while also attempting to set up a sting operation for Morgan and Garcetti.

When he returns home, Danny sheds his clothes and his personality, and basks in his past life as trumpet player "Tom Van Allen". He reveals to an abused neighbor named Colette that he was once happily married, only to watch as his wife was gunned down by masked thieves during a stopover at the Salton Sea.

When meeting with Pooh Bear, Danny becomes fearful of Pooh Bear's displays of bizarre homicidal behavior, so he tapes a gun to the bottom of a table.

Danny's parents-in-law track him down, believing he has sunk into depression after his wife's death, but he tells them he doesn't want their help. As the deal approaches, it becomes known that Danny is not only working for the police but FBI agents working to take down Morgan and Garcetti, who have committed multiple murders. It is also revealed that they were the men who killed his wife and wounded him as they robbed a drug dealer. Danny had started his own investigation when he found out who Morgan was and delved into the drug underworld to become a believable junkie.

On the night of the deal, Danny, with the help of his best friend Jimmy, leads the FBI to the wrong location. Meanwhile, Danny arrives at Pooh Bear's house. At the dinner table, surrounded by Pooh Bear's armed friends, tensions rise and one of Pooh Bear's men tries to kill Danny, who retrieves the gun he stashed earlier and shoots the rest of the gang. Shot in the chest by Pooh Bear, Danny collapses to the floor.

Pooh Bear, wounded in the leg, goes to take a shot of meth while mumbling incoherently. Morgan and Garcetti arrive, find the massacre, and Garcetti kills Pooh Bear, whose drug-filled hypo drops to the floor. Garcetti is then killed by Danny, whose life was saved by a bulletproof vest. Morgan is shot twice by Danny, who reveals to Morgan that he knows he murdered his wife. Morgan manages to snatch Danny's gun away, but finds it empty. Danny finds Pooh Bear's syringe on the floor and plunges it into Morgan's neck, then picks up a pistol and briefly contemplates suicide, but then shoots Morgan several times and flees.

Back in his apartment, he dons his Tom Van Allen identity again, but is shot by Colette's "boyfriend", who is in fact an agent tasked with exacting vengeance for the Mexicali Boys, a leader of whom Danny turned in to the police before the events of the film's present day timeline. Collette says she was forced to betray Danny because her daughter was being held hostage. The room catches fire, and Danny plays one more tune on his trumpet before passing out.

He regains consciousness to find that Jimmy has saved him from the fire and taken him to a hospital. After he recovers, he leaves the city, and the identities of Danny and Tom, behind.



Film critic Roger Ebert liked the film and the characters but gave it a mixed review:

The Salton Sea is all pieces and no coherent whole. Maybe life on meth is like that. The plot does finally explain itself, like a dislocated shoulder popping back into place, but then the plot is off the shelf; only the characters and details set the movie aside from its stablemates. I liked it because it was so endlessly, grotesquely, inventive: Watching it, I pictured Tarantino throwing a stick into a swamp, and the movie swimming out through the muck, retrieving it, and bringing it back with its tail wagging. [4]

Critic Robert Koehler, writing in Variety magazine, also gave the film a mixed review, writing, "The latest fashion, The Salton Sea strains past the breaking point to provide the old genre with new couture. Tyro helmer D.J. Caruso appears compelled to strut his cinematic stuff in every scene, whether called for or not, and in the process overplays his assignment." [5]

The New York Times film critic Stephen Holden believes the film to be derivative, and wrote:

The Salton Sea, directed by D. J. Caruso from a screenplay by Tony Gayton (who also wrote the recent Murder by Numbers ), blatantly recycles moods and images from other recent films and compacts them into a formula of its own. From Heat it borrows a noirish twilighted despair; from Pulp Fiction , a fondness for grotesque caricature; from Requiem for a Dream , a contortedly druggy ambience; and from Fight Club a surrealist bravado and choked-back super-macho cool. All that borrowing lends The Salton Sea style to burn but little personality of its own. [6]

Slate film critic David Edelstein reviewed the work of actor Val Kilmer favorably, writing:

The good news is that Kilmer, a smart, nervy actor who looked to be down for the count—the victim, some have suggested, of his own untenable temperament—is in there working hard and giving a real performance. He doesn't make the movie worth seeing, but he makes me hope to see him again. [7]

As of July 2020, the film holds a 64% approval rating on the review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes, based on 85 reviews with an average rating of 5.78 out of 10. The site's consensus states: "A slick Tarantino-inspired movie that is not for everyone." [8]

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  1. The Numbers web site.
  3. Inland Empire Film Commission: IEFC Film Credits Archived 2013-03-27 at the Wayback Machine
  4. Ebert, Roger. Film review, Chicago Sun-Times , 17 May 2002. Last accessed: February 6, 2011.
  5. Koehler, Robert. Film review, Variety , 18 February 2002. accessed: February 6, 2011.
  6. Holden, Stephen. Film review; Speeding to Hit Bottom, and About to Get There Fast, The New York Times, 26 April 2002. Last accessed: February 6, 2011.
  7. Edelstein, David. "A Farce With Force", Slate, 26 April 2002. Last accessed: February 6, 2011.
  8. "The Salton Sea (2002)". Rotten Tomatoes . Flixster . Retrieved July 3, 2020.