As a film viewer who has seen Donnie Darko (2001) far too many times on the big screen than they would care to admit, I still find watching Southland Tales a rather painful experience. This recent viewing would be the fourth time and still, Southland Tale is a movie that simply doesn’t work the way it should. A film so angry at everything that it becomes dizzyingly unfocused. It’s fuelled by ambition but guided, blinded if you will, by youthful exuberance and it shows. Many film school students probably have a film in their heads as wildly ranged in tone and topic as Kelly’s Southland Tales, but few get to see it on a grand stage.
After Donnie Darko become a cult hit in the best way (with strong support from the U.K. in 2002), it appeared that Kelly was given carte blanche for his next feature. Written shortly before the 9/11 attacks, Southland Tales started out as a comedy which poked fun at Hollywood, further drafts had Kelly mutating the movie into a grander, sprawling L.A, Sci-Fi “epic”. A vast tome of alternative fuels, political fanatics and civil liberties. In addition to this, Southland Tales’ grand themes of ex-porn star celebs and surveillance culture bump and grind constantly with Kelly’s multitude of pop cultural references. Kelly was very quick to note Kiss Me Deadly (1955) as a key text. Phillip K Dick rears his head in the dialogue. Biblical motifs about the book of revelations are rife. Meanwhile, the film’s fractured space-time rifts hark back to Kelly’s own haunting debut. It’s a film that literally does it’s best to throw everything at the screen. Blink and you’ll miss a nearly unrecognisable Kevin Smith as wispy breaded “Simon Theory”. Justin Timberlake pops up as the chief narrator of proceedings as the whacked out Private Pilot Abilene, snagging the films memorable musical set piece. Yes, that is the Pop Singer-cum-RnB Artist lip-syncing to “All the Things I’ve Done” by The Killers. It is that kind of movie.
Kelly’s Donnie Darko invoked an 80’s dreamscape of cultural nostalgia and teen angst in a way that almost feels trivial in a world of synth score revival and Stranger Things. There may be talk of a tangent universe and a Doomsday Rabbit, but its universe has a cinematic suburban “truthfulness” to it which was one step away from Blue Velvet (1986) but more than a big toe dipped into the suburban arrangements of Poltergeist (1982). In Southland Tales, Kelly’s satire decides to go fully postmodern. Released in 2007 but set in an alternative 2008, the film’s narrative depicts a world in where statements like “The Internet is the future” wink so hard at you that the eye waters and that satirical, on the nose ads of humping cars make Paul Verhoeven seem subtle. Tanks hold advertisements for Hustler on their sides. The character of ex-Porn Star now Teen Pop sensation/faux activist Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar) gives off notes of adult star Mary Carey’s political campaigning, while the additions of Radiohead and Muse on the film’s soundtrack only help exacerbate the film’s themes of an alienated and paranoid future.
This article is 538 words in and it’s only scratched the surface of a film that feels it has a lot to say. Notice there’s no talk of the actual synopsis and only brief mention of one of the actual main characters (who promptly goes missing for much of the lengthy running time). The film centres on action star Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson dropping his alias of The Rock for the first time), who wakes up in the middle of the desert unsure of who he is and where he’s been. L.A is preparing for the 4th of July celebrations and instead of being with preparing to celebrate with his Republican wife Madeline (Mandy Moore) and their cohorts, he has shacked up with ex-porn actress Krysta Now who is now working on a reality T.V with the help of some Neo-Marxist terrorists. Amidst all this, kidnapped Policeman Roland Taverner (Sean William Scott) is looking for his twin brother, who said Neo-Marxist bros clearly have something to deal with. America now fractured by two nuclear attacks in Texas and fighting a Third World War, accelerates and expands The Patriot Act, and creates an all-seeing surveillance company named I.Dent. Meanwhile a German company; Treer, design a renewable fuel source, fluid Karma, which not only may have something to do with ripping holes within space and time (seriously) but may have possibly experimented on the U.S Army, hence the wide-eyed ramblings of the films narrator Pilot Abilene. Christopher Lambent also appears. Driving a heavily armed Ice Cream truck.
Fans of Southland Tales may be tearing their hair out at possibly incorrect synopsis detailed above, however, the film’s overtly complicated narrative is part of its problem. It is a mess of a film with very little care to provide an entry point for an audience who may only be watching as fans of its eclectic cast. This may not have been a problem, if like, say Blade Runner (1982), Southland Tales was interested in teasing the transgressive and conflicting emotions of its characters. But Kelly isn’t that kind of director. Just like in his directors cut of Donnie Darko, he appears to be more interested in the minutia. Distressingly, this can be felt in many of the scenes, in which the actors don’t pull off the dialogue they exclaim with full conviction. Too often there are sequences where the cast is trying to work it all out. It’s no surprise that the film’s jewel, in which a drunk and delirious Justin Timberlake lip-syncs The Killers and dances mischievously with nubile young dancers, is the scene that works best. There’s very little need for translation.
Southland Tales works best when it simplifies its lofty goals. The aforementioned Hustler symbol emblazoned on a military tank. The drab open-plan offices, which hold a motley crew of prying eyes overseeing all of the so-called Southland. Even the bizarre dance sequence late on between Johnson’s Boxer Santos, his conservative wife and his new liberal porn star girlfriend is a sly wink to how our political views slip and slide in and out of our grasp. What’s frustrating is just how many moments like this seem so ahead of their time. The fixation of shadowy surveillance and removal of civil liberties expressed come ten years before the election of Obama or Trump. Obama’s problematic foreign policy on drone warfare is condensed within the all-seeing eye of Timberlake’s Private Pilot Abilene who watches over beaches not just as a junkie veteran, but as a sniper. Amy Pohler crops up in a small role as a little known, fame-hungry performance artist working with the Neo-Marxists. “We’re are cultural icons!” she exclaims. Her so-called political posturing maybe for the left, but it’s hard not to think of the right-leaning rantings of Tomi Lahren or Prison Planet’s Paul Joseph Watson and how their “always right never wrong” proclamations in their viral videos and tweets have permeated into parts of the cultural landscape of the later end millennial generation.
Therefore, the film’s faults are found to be more frustrating. The L.A setting and the multitude of characters give the film a feeling of a slightly removed mish-mash of Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993), Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia and Kathryn Bigelow’s criminally under-seen Strange Days (1995), but the characters’ introductions and motivations remain murky and cumbersome. They remain distanced and impenetrable cyphers in an uninviting film universe. After being poorly received at the Cannes film festival, Kelly went to town on the original three hours plus cut and released the two and a half film now available to audiences. The depth of the cuts shows without needing to see the original cut. Relationships and characters are clearly truncated while reasonings behind what the hell is actually going on never really come to fruition. In addition to this, Kelly’s decision of releasing the opening of the Southland Tales on three graphic novels, having the film officially opening with a chapter four title, highlights some of the hubris that was on display. Thinking that people would be so immediately invested in Southland Tales that they would be all clued up by the opening of the film because they read the graphic novels was a gross miscalculation. Especially when the film’s denseness is placed into consideration. That said, Kelly predates the cohesion and synergy that has been brought from Marvel Studios, where images of the cinematic universe bled into the comic books, while the combination of the televisual and cinematic output combine to create a vast landscape. The difference though is Marvel’s understanding that not every viewer will be watching every aspect. The hastily thrown together opening in Southland Tales which tries to build an exceptionally vast world just doesn’t cut it.
Another dismissive aspect can be said for when the film turns to the topic of racism. Jon Lovitz appears briefly as a racist cop while Sean William Scott is asked to portray a racially insensitive officer, but in the same way Southland Tales brand of Sci-Fi seems far more interested in the mechanics than the emotive, any talk on race is held as a quickly dropped plot device than a wish to tackle the theme. Once the only African American (Wood Harris) character is shot, the film never places that aspect into any perspective. In comparison to this Strange Days shows an alternative future L.A as a grand melting pot. Bigelow’s film also has one eye on futurism, with immersive technology that was way ahead of its time. However, Bigelow never loses sight of its people and understands that a film about a futuristic L.A without any serious talk about race, may be doing the film a great disservice. Particularly when a film like Southland Tales is talking about civil liberties. It’s important to note that if you take away Wood Harris, Dwayne Johnson and Bai Ling, and you’ve removed the notable people of colour from the cast. Southland Tales is swift in then hot takes on Bush and the Patriot Act, but Bigelow’s Strange Days wisely keeps one foot in L.A’s past with events such as the beating of Rodney King looming large over the material.
Despite this, it’s no surprise that Kelly’s film remains a cultural oddity for some. It’s hard to see a filmmaker of Kelly’s then age being allowed to make such a large scale film these days that’s not an already branded IP. It’s often fascinating in some of the aspects the film manages to nail. It’s hard not to see shades of Sasha Grey and her rise to mainstream recognition in Gellar’s performance as Krysta Now. The film somewhat unfortunately plays this aspect for board humour, but Grey’s clear desire to be seen as more than just a “porn star” is mirrored in Gellar’s spunky performance. A character mentions that a celebrity with political ties is perfect for a science experiment and while Kelly couldn’t possibly predict the rise of Trump, Southland Tales predates some of the cultural extremes that laid in wait for us.
The problem is that Southland Tale’s brand of sci-fi isn’t particularly emotive. It’s a film that’s more interested in the telling of a joke than whether it lands. It’s far too easy to watch the film like Holmes Osborne’s hapless Senator, constantly perplexed at the events. Like a surrogate for the audience, he’s never really informed what everything is all about. Southland Tales never does enough to make the complexity truly engaging. The gags that work, are often the broadest. The most enjoyable moments, don’t involve the dialogue. Allegedly if Richard Kelly is asked about the film, particularly the areas that don’t seem to make sense, he will happily inform people of what’s going on. It’s all still up there in his head. It’s his baby and he knows exactly what’s going on in that universe. But isn’t that a problem? That the film needs to be explained by someone else for it to be enjoyed? For its fans who can get wrapped up in its theories and mythos, it’s fine to be immersed in the dense narrative. For many others, however, this was the way their relationship with Richard Kelly ended, not with a bang but with a whimper.