Kalifornia is a 1993 American road thriller film directed by Dominic Sena, in his directorial debut. It stars Brad Pitt, Juliette Lewis, David Duchovny, and Michelle Forbes. The film tells the story of a journalist (Duchovny) and his photographer girlfriend (Forbes) traveling cross-country to research serial killings, who unwittingly carpool with a psychopath (Pitt) and his childlike girlfriend (Lewis).
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Dominic Sena|
|Screenplay by||Tim Metcalfe|
|Music by||Carter Burwell|
|Edited by||Martin Hunter|
|Distributed by||Gramercy Pictures|
|Box office||$2.4 million|
Filmed in Georgia and rural inland California in the spring of 1993, Kalifornia premiered at the Montreal World Film Festival on August 27, 1993, where it was awarded two competition prizes. It was released theatrically the following week in the United States, but was a box office bomb, grossing $2.4 million against a nearly $9 million budget. The film received mixed reviews from critics, with some praising its art house sensibility, while others dismissed it as a violent exploitation film. Despite this, the film's acting was largely praised, and critic Roger Ebert heralded the performances of Pitt and Lewis among the best he had ever seen. The film was nominated for three Saturn Awards in 1994, including for Best Horror Film.
Brian Kessler is a graduate student and journalist whose article about serial killers has gotten him an offer for a book deal from a publisher. He and his girlfriend Carrie Laughlin, an avant garde photographer, decide to relocate to California in hopes of enriching their careers. The two plot their journey from Louisville, Kentucky to Los Angeles, planning to visit infamous murder sites along the way which Carrie can photograph for Brian's book. Short on funds, Brian posts a ride-share ad on the university campus.
Meanwhile, psychopathic parolee Early Grayce has just lost his job. His parole officer learns of this and comes to the trailer park where Early lives with his naïve, developmentally-delayed girlfriend Adele Corners. Early refuses the officer's offer of a job as a janitor at the university, saying he wants to leave the state, but the officer pressures him into keeping his appointment for the job interview. When Early arrives at the campus, he sees the ride-share ad and calls Brian, who agrees to meet him the following day. Early sends Adele ahead, then murders his landlord before joining her to wait for Brian and Carrie. Carrie is reluctant about riding with the couple given their rough-hewn appearance, but Brian encourages her to give them a chance. On the road, unbeknown to his companions, Early murders a man in a gas station bathroom and steals his money. When they arrive at their first hotel, Early cuts Adele's long hair shorter to try to match Carrie's.
At another hotel, Early invites Brian out to play pool, leaving Adele and Carrie alone together. Adele explains that her mother did not approve of her relationship, because Early had just been released from prison. Adele reveals to Carrie that she suffered a vicious gang rape and that she views Early as her protector, even though he sometimes "punishes" her. While Carrie and Adele drink beer, Adele also admits to Carrie that Early forbids her to smoke or drink. Meanwhile, at a local bar, Early assaults a man who confronts Brian. Later on during the road-trip, Early introduces Brian to pistol shooting in a remote, unnamed location.
Carrie is alarmed by Brian's growing fascination with Early, and by Brian's nonchalant response to the news that Early is a convicted felon. After catching Early and Adele having sex in the car, she gives Brian an ultimatum: either they rid themselves of the pair, or she will leave. At a desert gas station, Carrie glimpses a news report about Early being a suspected murderer. Early kills the gas station attendant in front of Carrie and continues the trip with the couple as hostages. At an abandoned mine camp, the party encounter two police officers, whom Early shoots and kills. They next come to the home of an elderly couple in the desert. Early beats the man to death, but Adele allows the woman to flee.
When Early confronts Adele about letting the woman free, she hits him in the face with a cactus and chastises him, after which he shoots her to death. He then knocks Brian unconscious before kidnapping Carrie, driving her to the abandoned Dreamland nuclear testing site on the California-Nevada border. Brian regains consciousness, and the elderly woman gives him the keys to her truck. Brian follows Early to the nuclear test site and attacks him, hitting him in the face with a shovel. Brian finds Carrie handcuffed to a bed in abandoned house, having been sexually assaulted. Early, who was only stunned, attacks Brian and they struggle until Early is hit over the head by Carrie with the limb from a nuclear test mannequin. When Early continues the attack, Brian shoots and kills him.
Some time later, Brian and Carrie are living in an oceanfront house in Malibu. As Brian sifts through tapes made with his voice recorder during their trip, Carrie tells him that a local gallery is interested in her art. Brian responds by suggesting they go out to celebrate. As they depart, Brian unintentionally leaves a recording running, which reveals a "thank you" message Adele covertly left at the end of a tape.
- Brad Pitt as Early Grayce
- Juliette Lewis as Adele Corners
- David Duchovny as Brian Kessler
- Michelle Forbes as Carrie Laughlin
- James Michael McDougal as John Diebold
- Mars Callahan as Walter Livesy
- Brett Rice as Police Officer
- Loanne Bishop as Female Officer
- Sierra Pecheur as Mrs. Musgrave
- John Dullaghan as Mr. Musgrave
In Lost Highways: An Illustrated History of Road Movies writers Jack Sargeant and Stephanie Watson note that the film presents doubled images of the two couples, "contrary rituals of affirmation" between Early and Adele, and Brian and Carrie, which demonstrate their social and class-related disparities. Sargeant and Watson also interpret the character of Carrie as an androgen that "offers a threat to order" in the dynamics between Early, Adele, and Brian.
Film scholar Charles Derry views Kalifornia as part of a historical trend of serial killer films released in the early 1990s, popularized by the success of Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs (1991). Derry interprets the film's misspelled title as a "political attack on those fascist qualities within AmeriKa which breed such violence," and also draws parallels between its aesthetic elements to those of Psycho (1960). Furthermore, Derry considers the climactic sequence setting at the Dreamland nuclear testing site as an "image of Armageddon" symbolic of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, which themselves "should be considered government-sanctioned serial killings on a massive scale."
Originally titled California, the script was written by Tim Metcalfe with Stephen Levy in 1987. Metcalfe later commented their intentions were "to scare an audience, to comment on our national obsession with 'true crime' stories, and to punish myself for my morbid preoccupation with the subject of murder and murderers." The script was optioned in November 1990 by Propaganda Films, by request of director Dominic Sena. Sena would go on to mention his positive impression on the script was mainly based on the premise and the character of Early Grayce.
Between November 1990 and March 1991, Metcalfe completed two rewrites of the script to implement changes requested by Sena and Propaganda Films. The characters of Brian and Carrie were given professions as a writer and a photographer, respectively, while retaining the original premise to share a ride with a serial killer. Metcalfe disagreed on the direction the script was being developed, while Sena and the producers found his rewrites "uninspiring". In March 1991, Metcalfe was fired from the project.
Without the budget to hire another writer, Sena, along with his two producers, spent another year writing ten subsequent drafts of the script. Their contributions included the voice-over narration of the character of Brian, along with a change of tone from a black comedy to a more violent thriller. Sena maintained the rewrites helped them to secure the cast, as well as an increase to the originally proposed budget of $4.5 million.
Brad Pitt was cast as the violent Early Grayce, as he had been seeking out a role that was at odds with the wholesome "pretty boy" image he had portrayed in Thelma & Louise (1991) and A River Runs Through It (1992). Juliette Lewis was cast in the role while still completing production on Martin Scorsese's Cape Fear (1991), and had been in a relationship with Pitt at the time. In the role of Carrie, Michelle Forbes was cast after she completed an audition in Los Angeles, as Sena felt she possessed the cool aloofness of the character. The role of Brian Kessler was the last to be cast, with David Duchovny ultimately receiving the role after several screen tests with Pitt, Lewis, and Forbes.
Filming of Kalifornia began in the late spring of 1992. Some of the film's early scenes were shot in an old industrial area west of downtown Atlanta and in the Castleberry Hill neighborhood, after which the production moved westward through various locations in California. On June 28, 1993, while filming at a gas station in rural California, the production was temporarily halted following a 7.5 magnitude earthquake.
Sena recalled the shoot being extremely difficult, with the shooting schedule sometimes allowing only one day in certain locations. According to Sena, throughout the production, Pitt and Lewis, who were a couple at the time, would go home and work on lines together during the evenings. Producer Steve Golin recounted during the shoot that "all four of [the main cast] have been so pro, I've been impressed. They have been working ridiculous hours under conditions that are not star-like. The hotels in the desert are not luxurious; they get a room with a swamp cooler, they don't even have air conditioning. It's a rough show."
|Kalifornia - Original Soundtrack|
|Soundtrack album by |
|Released||August 3, 1993|
|1.||"Do You Need Some?"||Matt Mercado||Mind Bomb||6:25|
|3.||"Deep"||Tony Mortimer||East 17||4:04|
|4.||"When You Come Back"||Drivin N Cryin||3:00|
|5.||"No One Said It Would Be Easy"||Sheryl Crow||5:29|
|6.||"I Love the World"||Angelique Bianca||The Indians||5:36|
|7.||"Lettuce and Vodka"||X||5:05|
|9.||"Born for Love"||David Baerwald||David Baerwald||6:17|
|10.||"Dive Bomber"||Sean Dickson||Soup Dragons||2:44|
|11.||"Look Up to the Sky"||Angelique Bianca||The Indians||7:20|
|12.||"Kalifornia/Cactus Girl"||Carter Burwell||Carter Burwell||4:11|
Other songs featured in the film that are not included on the soundtrack include "89 Lines" by Daniel O'Brien, "Seven Days" by Hugh Harris, "Playin' in the Dirt" by Heather Myles, "Strong Enough" by Sheryl Crow, "Come Home" by Pere Ubu, "(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66" by Asleep at the Wheel, "Symphony No. 8 in F Major Op. 93" by Ludwig van Beethoven and Brad Pitt partially singing part of Free Bird by Lynyrd Skynyrd.
After premiering at the Montreal World Film Festival in August 1993, Kalifornia was released theatrically in the United States on September 3, 1993 at 359 theaters. The film was a box office bomb, only grossing $2,395,231 against an $8.5 million budget. The film opened at number 17 at the U.S. box office during its opening weekend with a $1.1 million gross, averaging $3,228 per theater.
Kalifornia received generally mixed reviews. It holds a 58% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, an average score of 6.2/10, sampled from 31 reviews. On Metacritic, the film has a score of 49 out of 100, determined from 17 critics' reviews, signifying "mixed or average reviews." Film scholar Robert Cettl noted in his book Serial Killer Cinema that, upon its release, "Kalifornia was both praised as an insightful demystification of the serial killer, and vilified as a glorification of nihilistic violence."
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times lauded the film, awarding it a full four stars and describing it as "unflinchingly honest, and so well acted that for most of the film I abandoned any detachment and just watched it as if I were observing the lives of real people." Ebert went on to note that Pitt and Lewis give "two of the most harrowing and convincing performances I've ever seen." Leonard Klady of Variety also praised the performances of the lead cast and likened the film to Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter (1955), deeming it "an extremely handsome production imbued with a chilling, surrealistic sensibility." Janet Maslin of The New York Times described the film as "an exercise in contrasting personalities, with Ms. Lewis's Adele by far the most arresting," but added that the film "is indeed good-looking, with its striking desert landscapes nicely photographed by Bojan Bazelli, and with costumes by Kelle Kutsugaras that say everything -- and more -- about the people who wear them. If looks were everything, maybe they'd be on the right track."
Richard Harrington of The Washington Post heralded the film's aesthetic elements, writing that it "is so beautifully filmed by Bojan Bazelli, and so skillfully edited, that its art house surface belies its exploitation content, making this a trip through a cool world rather than a cruel one." The Chicago Tribune's Gene Siskel echoed a similar sentiment regarding the relationship between the film's artistic merit and its representation of violence, noting: "[Kalifornia is] yet another terribly violent film about a serial killer. And although the script suffers from an ending that doesn't have that much to say that's fresh about remorseless murderers, the trip is worth taking because we meet four indelible characters in one compelling scene after another." Joe Brown of The Washington Post was dismissive of the film on the grounds of its violent material, deeming it a "new nadir in nauseating nihilism." Writing for the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan noted that though the film is visually "slick and stylish," it "doesn't make the encroaching mayhem any easier to take," and felt that the performances of Pitt and Lewis registered as "mannered and even a trifle repetitive."
Some critics, such as Peter Travers of Rolling Stone, felt certain elements of the script were "preposterous," while the Chicago Tribune's Mark Caro deemed it a "pretentious B movie." Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly made similar criticisms, writing that, "from its inception, Kalifornia... throws all dramatic sense out the window," and ultimately described it as a "a film-school thesis gone disastrously wrong." Owen McNally of the Hartford Courant, though praising of the performances, wrote: "If you hop aboard this sick, unjoyful ride, you'd better bail out early. Unsafe at any speed, this dramatic vehicle goes up in flames, consumed by a lethally defective mix of pomposity and pretension."
PolyGram Home Video first released Kalifornia on VHS and DVD on November 18, 1997. The DVD edition featured both unrated and theatrical cuts of the film in pan and scan and widescreen aspect ratios. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) Home Entertainment released the film again on DVD in 2000 before reissuing the unrated cut alone on Blu-ray and DVD in August 2010. On March 5, 2019, Shout! Factory released a 2-disc special edition Blu-ray of the film under their Shout! Select label, featuring both the unrated and theatrical cuts, as well as a new interview with director Dominic Sena. This edition marks the first time the theatrical cut has been made available on Blu-ray.
|Award/association||Date of ceremony||Category||Recipient(s) and nominee(s)||Result||Ref.|
|Montreal World Film Festival||September 7, 1993||Best Artistic Contribution||Dominic Sena||Won|||
|FIPRESCI Prize||Dominic Sena||Won|
|Saturn Awards||October 20, 1994||Best Horror Film||Kalifornia||Nominated|||
|Best Actress||Michelle Forbes||Nominated|
|Best Writing||Tim Metcalfe||Nominated|
Following the completion of the film, DC Comics commissioned a comic book adaptation from writer Chuck Dixon and artist Duncan Fegredo. Fegredo recalled the 32-page adaptation was planned to be released as a supplementary for the film's video release. The adaptation was never published, though it got as far as the completion of some coloring work done by Danny Vozzo. Fegredo has speculated this was due to the demise of Gramercy Pictures, a production company involved handling the rights. An uncolored version, complete with Fegredo's original cover art, has since been uploaded to the Internet.
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