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Crystal Crack-Up 

*The Salton Sea (R)
Warner Bros.

This revenge thriller, the first feature film of director D.J. Caruso, is stylishly drawn, cunningly plotted and well acted. A range of gritty characters inhabit it and atmospheric shots of L.A. back streets and outskirts give it a well-worn, urban feel. And despite the usual suspicion that any film saturated with drugs -- in this case, crystal meth -- and drug dealers must celebrate and glamorize the drug culture, The Salton Sea turns out to be a cautionary tale that turns the culture on its head with intelligence and wit.

Val Kilmer shines in his best role in years as Danny Parker, a speed freak who inhabits "the land of the perpetual night party." The film opens with a shot of Kilmer sitting in a burning room, blowing a mournful Miles Davis tune on a trumpet. Who he is and how he got here is the central concern of the film, and we are first taken to the scene where he and his ragged cast of friends hang out, do drugs and cut deals. Peter Sarsgaard gives a tender performance as Danny's best friend Jimmy and Adam Goldberg is funny and edgy as Kujo, the hapless ringleader of a bunch of stooge crank heads.

We soon discover that Danny's also a police informant who reports in the wee hours to two rough cops, Morgan (Doug Hutchison) and Garcetti, played by Anthony LaPaglia who characteristically exudes loathing and a tripwire temper. When the cops cut him loose, informing him that his gig as a "rat" is over, Danny enters into a big drug deal to finance his departure. The dealer is a redneck comically named "Pooh Bear," played with gleeful rage and madness by Vincent D'Onofrio (television's Law and Order) who is, quite simply, one of the best character actors of his generation. Here, he's happier than a pig in a pile of rotten garbage, snorting and wheezing his way through the depiction of a guy so evil and over-the-top he might as well be sporting devil horns.

The Salton Sea unwinds with the revelation of Danny's motives, his true identity and a revenge plan that is well constructed and surprising at every turn. The climax is carefully crafted and placed, and the director and screenwriter don't trip us up with a hokey ending. Kilmer's quiet intensity as Danny earns the audience's loyalty and curiosity, and we're rewarded with a conclusion that affirms his humanity while maintaining his central mystery.

Director Caruso hits dead center with this original treatment. While it may remind the viewer of some obvious influences -- Requiem For a Dream and Trainspotting, to name a couple -- it stands on its own for excellent storytelling, intriguing character and place development, precise plotting, just enough tension and a quietly, mesmerizing pace. Some graphic violence naturally attends the subject matter but is not overdone.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

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