The Salton Sea

It’s about a man haunted by the death of his wife, and bent on revenging himself upon her killer. It begins at the end of the story, with the main character narrating and looking at a photograph. But it is not “Memento.”

It’s about a man with at least two identities who has caused a good deal of death and destruction. It begins at the end of the story, with the main character explaining how he came to be surrounded by such mayhem. At one point in the film, a camera goes through the barrel of a gun. But it is not “Fight Club.”

It’s “The Salton Sea,” which bears dark similarities to “Memento” and “Fight Club,” along with “Requiem for a Dream” and the works of David Lynch. There is even an honest-to-goodness homage to “Dirty Harry,” with a gun whose remaining bullet count the hero is not quite certain of.

Despite its resemblance to these great films, “The Salton Sea” is merely a very good one, marked by an ambitious style and solid performances, but hampered by a story (written by Tony Gayton) that buries its primary focus until late in the game.

This is the world of speed freaks — “tweakers,” they’re called — who live from one fix to the next and for whom night and day blend murkily into each other. It is the world our hero, Danny Parker (Val Kilmer), who is also known as Tom Van Allen, has sought out after the death of his wife. Unlike his counterpart in “Memento,” Danny WANTS to forget. The drugs help with that.

He has previously run afoul of the law, and now, in exchange for having his offenses reduced to misdemeanor status, he is helping the cops catch drug dealers. He works with a pair of detectives: seemingly mild-mannered Morgan (Doug Hutchison) and growly Garcetti (Anthony LaPaglia). Early in the film, they say they’re cutting him loose — oh, and by the way, the “Mexicali boys” have learned he’s a rat, and they’re after him.

Danny needs to score some money so he can get out of town. But Morgan and Garcetti are watching everything he does. And then the REAL plot emerges, and things begin to make sense, and if it had happened about 30 minutes earlier in the film, it would be a barn-burner of a movie.

The director is D.J. Caruso, who has previously done mostly TV dramas. He takes great strides forward here, blending dark humor with visceral imagery, often within the same scene. His efforts, combined with those from cinematographer Amir M. Mokri and editor Jim Page, make this the artiest anti-drug cautionary tale since, well, “Requiem for a Dream,” two years ago.

The performances are reliable, if not especially brilliant. Val Kilmer is more compelling than he’s been in years, and Peter Sarsgaard is downright sweet as his dim pal Jimmy the Finn. We also have Vincent D’Onofrio as nose-less redneck drug lord Pooh Bear, and Deborah Unger as Danny’s battered-girlfriend neighbor.

There are elements that seem weird just for weirdness’ sake, but then at the same time seem somehow natural in the bleak, frenetic world of the movie. Like the old man in the wheelchair who sings “Take a Walk on the Wild Side” at a karaoke bar, or Pooh Bear’s ravenous badger named Captain Stubing, or Pooh’s re-enactment of the JFK assassination using pigeons in the motorcade (including one in a pillbox hat).

The film has outrageous style yet seems not to want to draw attention to itself, if such a combination is possible. It’s well worth watching, both as a curiosity and as darkly diverting entertainment.

B (1 hr., 43 min.; R, harsh profanity, a lot of strong violence, some drug use.)