KALIFORNIA drew mixed reviews, some critics praising its acting and look, others slamming the script and tone: both camps have valid points. Audiences of 1993 didn’t turn out, however, and the intimate exercise in underbelly unease died on 161st place at the box office, grossing just $2,295,000 against a cost of $8,500,000. Tim Metcalfe’s original script was rewritten by director Dominic Sena and the producers (Metcalfe fired but given credit); Sena made his mark in music videos: this was his feature debut. After it flopped, it was seven years before he’d try again. *

Smug graduate student ‘Brian Kessler’ (David Duchovny, 32) lands a book deal offer based on an article he wrote about serial killers. Accompanied by his sexy, smirky-chic, photographer girlfriend ‘Carrie Laughlin (Michelle Forbes, 28) who specializes in Maplethorpe-style shots, Brian sets off on a cross-country road trip to L.A., visiting murder sites, recording his impressions while Carrie documents the atrocity dens with her camera. Answering his ad for paying passengers are ‘Early Grace’ (Brad Pitt, 29) and girlfriend ‘Adele Corners’ (Juliette Lewis, 19), the two a walking poster for bottom-feeder white-trash. Brian’s bemused, Carrie disgusted by the arrangement, which turns ever more sour when the ignorance and attitudes of Early and Adele manifest in ways that go beyond revulsion into dread.

Bug-under-glass compelling thanks to the performances and the location-projected menace captured in Bojan Bozelli’s cinematography, the disquieting subject matter and heightening spiral of peril keep you hooked even though the twisted company on this ride to Hell is less than savory or sympathetic. Pitt, grunged down, aggressively plays against the ‘pretty boy’ image he had at the time (from Thelma and Louise, Cool World and A River Runs Through It), displaying a flair for the feral. Lewis is remarkably convincing as the childish naif in denial about the nature of her ‘true love’. Icy hot in the Sharon Stone mold, Forbes provided the gravitas that Duchovny lacks: he’s the weak link in the quartet, though the writing is much to blame, since Brian is as much chump as wimp.

The tone fluctuates, the violence at the finish is decidedly harsh, the basic setup more than dodgy: how clueless (intellectual arrogance a culprit) would you have to be to put a pair like Early and Adele in your back seat? Logic says a 15-second lookover would suffice, let alone putting up with them for several days before backing out becomes moot. The weak finale feels tacked on. 117 minutes.

* While Pitt’s starpower soon went stratospheric, Duchovny struck gold that same year on TV with The X-Files. Lewis stayed continually busy in a variety of venues, Forbes as well. Sena, their director, eventually returned to the pilot’s seat with large-budgeted actioners Gone In Sixty Seconds, Swordfish and Season Of The Witch. Reviews were dire, but they scored at the box office.

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