Directed by Dominic Sena and released theatrically in 1993, Kalifornia is an interesting serial killer road movie hybrid that follows a yuppie journalist named Brian Kessler (David Duchovney) who is travelling across the country conducting research for a book he's writing on serial killer. Accompanying him on the ride is his girlfriend, Carrie (Michelle Forbes), a photographer who is happy to help him out on this project. The couple intends to relocate to California and this seems like a good way to make the trip more productive - there's only one catch, they want someone to pitch in with the travel expenses. They put up a notice on a university bulletin board where the would-be school janitor, Early Grace (Bradd Pitt), out on parole, sees it. He and his girlfriend, Adele (Juliette Lewis) decide that a cross country trip sure would beat having to pay the back rent they owe on their trailer and after Early has murdered and buried the landlord, they're off.
As the two couples make their way west in Brian's car, they start to get to know each other. Slowly at first, but before you know it Early's true nature starts to come to the surface as Brian and Adele realize that the subject they've set out to research is very much alive and well in the back seat.
As this film plays out you're set up to expect it to follow the path so many other horror films take, that being the 'good couple' needs to try and escape from the 'bad couple' lest they wind up their next victims. Kalifornia is smarter than that, however, and it takes a different approach to a somewhat familiar genre (and one that seemed unusually popular in the early nineties for whatever reason - blame the media). Yes, Brian and Carrie soon develop an understandably healthy fear of Early just as anyone else would but given their predisposed interest in murder, they also develop a macabre fascination with him. The film does have some of the usual power struggles we expect between two alpha male characters but the line between good guy and bad guy becomes increasingly blurry as the story unfolds, particularly when the two men start to develop an uneasy friendship. This allows for a bit of role reversal as far as traditional movie mores are concerned: you expect Brian to be the one to figure out what Early is psychotic, but he is instead fascinated by him and almost under his spell by the time Early teaches him how to use a gun. It's Carrie who instead clues in to the fact that Early is physically abusive to Adele, and who then begins to see what kind of person Early really is.
Additionally, the film makes some interesting class contrasts which further the tensions between the two couples. Early and Adele are dirt poor and don't seem very well educated, though it becomes very obvious very quickly that Early is anything but stupid. They're typical 'white trash' clichés in a lot of ways and have obviously grown up in bad environments without much money. Brian and Carrie are yuppies. They're educated, sophisticated, liberal in their thinking and initially seem to feel some pity for the other couple. Part of what makes Kalifornia interesting is how this gets turned around on them as the story plays out, and in turn, becomes increasingly violent.
As this clever and surprisingly believable story unfolds, the tension gets ramped up tighter and tighter until it all comes to the boil you knew it was heading towards. The film does manage to keep things interesting right up through to the end credits, however, which is a testament to the direction and the script, not to mention the performances. Duchovney is perfect as the slightly smug writer, Forbes every part his female equal. The two certainly look the part of upper middle class yuppies and they play their parts well. Juliette Lewis is well cast as Adele, vulnerable in appearance slightly slippery nevertheless. It's Brad Pitt who steals the show here, however. As Early he's a tightly wound and clever, calculating man, dangerous for those very reason and seemingly all too comfortable in the film's graphic violence.
Kalifornia arrives on Blu-ray in an AVC encoded 1080p 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen high definition presentation that actually looks quite good. The image is consistent in its film-like appearance, with a welcome coat of unobtrusive grain evident throughout but no actual serious print damage to complain about. Color reproduction is strong, though it should be noted that the movie leans towards a warm, almost bleached out color palette at times, while black levels are generally pretty strong. We don't get the detail here that we would from the latest and greatest blockbuster but a quick check against the standard definition DVD (also included) shows considerably more detail and much better texture. Some odd lighting choices result in a few shots where skin looks a bit off, but this is a stylistic choice rather than a transfer flaw. There are some scenes that do look quite a bit softer than others, but overall this is a pretty decent effort from Fox and thankfully there are no glaring issues with compression artifacts or edge enhancement problems.
The English language 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is a good one, but not quite as immersive as you might have hoped for. However, since the film is far from new, we can cut it some slack in that department and appreciate the stronger clarity and better bass response that this lossless track offers. Rear channel activity isn't as intense or frequent as it could have been, and more directionality might have made certain scenes more interesting (the opening storm sequence being the most obvious example) but on the plus side the track is well balanced and very clear. The score sounds good, adding some nice punchy atmosphere to the proceedings, and there are no problems with hiss or distortion to complain about.
Standard Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound options are also provided in French, German, Catalan, and Italian while Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo tracks appear in Spanish, Hungarian, Portuguese and Turkish. Subtitles are offered in English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Italian, Catalan, Croatian, Danish, Finnish, and Greek.
The only extra on the Blu-ray disc is the film's theatrical trailer, though it is at least presented in high definition. This release also includes a standard definition DVD that houses both the theatrical cut of the film and the unrated cut (the unrated version runs about a minute longer and contains a slightly more graphic version of the sex scene between Carrie and Brian and slightly gorier takes on the murder set pieces). The Bu-ray contains only the unrated cut. Menus and chapter selection options are included on both discs.
While the lack of any substantial extras is always a detriment to any release, the strong transfer and decent lossless audio option make this Blu-ray release of Kalifornia one that the film's fan base should appreciate. The visuals are treated very well, and the movie holds up nicely as well as a brooding take on serial killers, offering up some great scenes of tension and a few solid scares along with a few good performances and nice cinematography. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.