It’s time for another live-review. This time I’ve managed to DVR a copy of one of the more obscure films – and a hidden gem – that have been shown at Cinema 1544. I don’t know how he came across it, but Kevin Hill brought us a 2007 film directed by Mike Cahill – King of California. It’s the only film he has made to date…so his batting average is pretty high.
High-school drop-out Miranda (Evan Rachel Wood) plays the teenage daughter of a very scruffy – and mentally ill (really ill – like telling stories of naked Chinese immigrants swimming up to the California shore carrying their clothes in bags ill) – Charlie (Michael Douglas). They live in the house her father grew up in – a dilapidated old shack that stands out in the middle of a new suburban Santa Clarita housing development because he refuses to sell. Miranda has been living by herself in the house for the past two years as Charlie was on a stint in a mental hospital, working at Mickey D’s and getting by, but now Charlie is back – and crazy as ever.
Charlie’s current obsession is treasure hunting – armed with a metal detector and a series of old maps he goes on late-night expeditions, and unable to stop him, Miranda reluctantly accompanies him. When Charlie finds what he believes is a gold doubloon, he believes that he’s on the trail of a large Spanish treasure. His searches aren’t entirely fruitless – he turns up a large stone with three crosses carved on it as described in one of the journals, and at that point Miranda is beginning to get on board, and they go off in search of the source of the long-dry Santa Clarita river.
Their search is going well until they run into a bit of a snag – Charlie’s calculations indicate that the treasure is buried under the slab of a CostCo. He’s undeterred, but when he sells her car to pay the rent on a backhoe he’s using in his explorations, she flips out and compares his treasure hunt to many of his previous endeavors, including his marriage, all failures.
But eventually he sells his beloved bass to get her car back and Miranda comes back on board – to the extent of getting a job at the CostCo. She even accepts an invitation to her manager’s creepiest swinger party ever just to get her hands on the building master key – just as they get kicked out of their house for falling behind on the mortgage. At this point, there’s not much to keep them from carrying out the plan. With the help of one of Charlie’s old friends they break into the CostCo one night. They can’t avoid setting off the alarm, but they fix the alarm to indicate “gas leak” instead of intrusion and open a few propane containers, then hide until the fire department declares the all-clear and leaves. Thus begins probably the only scene in movie history that involves jackhammering through the slab of a CostCo by lantern light. And sure enough, he hits something.
It smells awful. It’s the sewer. And she can’t dissuade him from going in decked with full scuba gear.
Except it’s not a sewer after all – it really is an underground river, and he really finds the treasure. Really truly. And as the cops show up, he ties up Miranda and goes back in – to his death. But not before hiding some of the treasure in a washing machine, half of the tag of which he gives to his daughter. She buys it and goes out to the Pacific Ocean to open it, where she sees some naked Chinese immigrants swimming to shore carrying their clothes in bags. The End.
One of the most successful things about the script for King of California is that it does a great job of misdirecting you to believe that there’s no treasure – one possibility is that Charlie is just completely insane, another is that he’s organized this entire crazy escapade as a way of spending time with his daughter. Either way, just about the last thing that you expect as the film winds down is that not only is there in fact a treasure but that Charlie will find it. It’s a fairy-tale ending. And yes, normally fairy tales are tripe, but when you get set up for a tragedy and at the end you get the fairy-tale switcheroo, that can be pretty nice.
I have no idea how someone can write and direct a film as perfect and poignant as King of California and then never get another chance. I just don’t get it. I mean, just like the subject of the film, King of California itself is a hidden treasure and it’s just too bad that it gets no due.