Did you know James Franco directs? Well he does and he directed Sal: A glacially-paced, meditative look at the last day of actor Sal Mineo’s (Rebel Without a Cause, Exodus) life. We follow his every action, no matter how banal, until we arrive at the fatal stabbing that ended the young actor’s life.
Director: James Franco
Sal is a passion project for Franco, an actor whose career has exponentially expanded since he played the role of James Dean in 2001’s TV biopic James Dean. It was on the set of this film that he was first exposed to the life of Mineo, but it wasn’t until the arrival of Michael Michaud’s biography, in 2010, that Franco found a basis for a screenplay. As a result, Sal is a loving, intense tribute to the actor, yet it lacks the finesse and style to interest those unfamiliar with the Oscar-nominated actor’s life.
Sal has one of the most painfully dull intros I’ve ever seen. After watching a poorly framed five-minute scene of Mineo pumping weights, we transition to a conversation between Mineo and his manager. We are shown nothing but extreme close-ups of the two for the entirety of the lengthy conversation. And, yet, Franco states that Sal is a “post-film school film.”
Franco isn’t shy about citing Gus Van Sant’s Last Days as an influence. It’s impossible not to compare the two, when viewing Sal. While the two films share a very similar plot and structure, Sal lacks the polish and style that made Sant’s film so hypnotizing. Van Sant took very mundane actions and filmed then in a very exciting way, but Sal is shot in a voyeuristic-style that makes the entire film feel too ordinary for its own good.
This aesthetic choice makes Sal feels lethargic and meandering. The film is at its best when it lets the camera wander or when ominous white noise juxtaposes an otherwise uneventful scene. Sal opens with an archived newscast stating the details of Mineo’s murder. As a result, all the following events carry a significance and uneasy tension despite how ordinary the event may be. Never before has a movie included so many tense close-ups of people eating.
The film thrives on the performance of Val Lauren, who brings some spirit to an otherwise lifeless film. Discovering what type of person Sal Mineo is — through the minutea of the day and the subtleties of Lauren’s performance — is part of the film’s appeal. By the film’s end, the idea of such a passionate, kind man being killed on-screen is too much to bear. Yet, I’m not sure if it’s a plus that the murder scene at the end is poorly shot and acted. I even heard an audience member chuckle.
Rather than fabricate events to give Mineo’s last day on Earth conflict and variety, Franco and Lauren accurately adapted his last day down to his final meal (via an autopsy report). The result is a film that often challenges the viewer’s patience. Near the end of the film, we see Mineo at a rehearsal for his last play and project P.S. My Cat is Dead. It doesn’t drag out, painfully, for 15 or so minutes because it merits it –- it drags because there is no other avenue for Franco and Lauren to explore.
Sal is an interesting expirement and tribute to a great actor not many knew. With extremely restraining conditions, Franco and Lauren manage to give us a glimpse into what kind of man he was in real life. It’s not always interesting, but it manages a difficult task of making a celebrity biopic feel real. Painfully real.