BORDERLINE WEIRD: SOUTHLAND TALES (2006)

DIRECTED BY: Richard Kelly

FEATURING: Dwayne Johnson, Seann William Scott, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Justin Timberlake, Wallace Shawn, Miranda Richardson

PLOT: In an alternate-universe America controlled by a surveillance-happy government, the

still from Southland Tales (2006)

lives of several Los Angeles residents—including a disabled veteran, a police officer, an amnesiac movie star, and a cell of political revolutionaries—intersect on the eve of the apocalypse.

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE:  Although its many subplots pile weird images and ideas on top of each other, many of them remain totally superfluous, and the film as a whole is a disappointing nexus of influences and half-baked premises rather than a cohesive work of art.  However, it does contain some moments of mesmerizing weirdness, and could have a chance of being certified weird in the future.

COMMENTS:  To follow up his impressive debut feature, Donnie Darko, Richard Kelly clearly wanted to challenge himself.  With Southland Tales, however, he bit off more than he could chew. All of Donnie Darko’s best and worst tendencies are on display (with an emphasis on the latter), but this time the showcase is twice as long, with enough intricate storylines and bizarre sci-fi subtexts to fill a dozen less ambitious movies.  With his second film’s epic size, Kelly lost the gently emotional touch that made Donnie’s coming-of-age so poignant; his fiery creative passion is still very perceptible here, but it’s obscured behind layers of apocalyptic razzle-dazzle, broad satire, and sophomoric humor.

In Southland Tales’ alternate timeline, Texas was struck by terrorist nukes in 2005, triggering World War III; this back story is filled in via a YouTube-style montage of video clips and hyperlinks.  It’s a genuinely original method of exposition, but alas, it’s a rare example of Kelly’s innovative spirit overcoming his love of non sequitur jokes and stunt casting.  While Donnie Darko just had Patrick Swayze’s unnervingly effective performance as a demagogic motivational speaker, Southland Tales crams in a disorienting array of surprise cameos and supporting players: Jon Lovitz as a hard-as-nails policeman; Kevin Smith as a bearded, paralyzed conspirator; Wallace Shawn as a megalomaniacal inventor who’s always accompanied by a bevy of eccentrics, Poltergeist’s Zelda Rubinstein among them.  This more-the-merrier approach aids in Kelly’s quest to make his movie as idiosyncratic as possible, but it also makes it feel like a 2 ½ hour parade of sideshows that are dragged together for a spectacular but meaningless finale.

These nonstop distractions notwithstanding, the film’s putative focus is on the conflict between the repressive regime of Orwellian snow queen Nana Mae Frost (Miranda Richardson) and Los Angeles’s guerrilla “Neo-Marxists,” with both sides trying to use delusional action movie star Boxer Santaros (Johnson) as their pawn.  Boxer’s fragile mental state during his stay with the Neo-Marxists and porn queen/media darling Krysta Now (Gellar) initially looks like a promising inroad to a neo-noirish mystery, especially as it features a clip of Kiss Me Deadly, but the plot thread degenerates into a series of unsatisfying explanations involving time travel, accidental cloning, and rips in the space-time continuum. Whereas Donnie Darko’s bizarre sci-fi detours worked as analogies for mental illness and self-sacrifice, Southland Tales gets weighed down in its third act by rambling expositional speeches about what’s going on, what it has to do with the energy source “Fluid Karma,” and why it’s all leading to the end of the world.  Why the viewer should care is never really addressed; Kelly just takes it for granted that we’re equally into his indecipherable mind games.

This is why Southland Tales is so frustrating.  Kelly’s desperate commentary on the state of 9/11 America is muffled beneath his extreme self-indulgence: his puerile jokes, like the title of Krysta’s debut album, Teen Horniness Is Not a Crime, which is repeated ad nauseum; his pretentious, self-congratulatory allusions, as when the movie practically grinds to a halt so he can demonstrate his knowledge of T.S. Eliot; and his painfully tone-deaf satire, which is reduced to cheap shots against Nana Mae’s stiff-necked presidential candidate husband (Holmes Osbourne).  The desperation is clearly there; the commentary, however, is lacking.  The film’s most potent scene is the one that’s unburdened by Kelly’s absurd dialogue: a 3-minute music video set to The Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done” in which a scarred, world-weary Justin Timberlake swaggers, lip-synchs, and guzzles beer in a hallucinated arcade.  Functioning like the “Mad World” sequence in Donnie Darko, the pairing of song and set-piece let Kelly escape into pop sublimity.  His dizzying, blatantly artificial visual aesthetic is most enjoyable in this bite-sized chunk; sustained over 144 minutes, it gets a little tiresome, especially when the film runs out of coherent ideas to back it up.

It’s a tragedy, really, because Southland Tales contains all the seeds of a truly great, weird, all-American epic.  Unfortunately, the film’s excesses trample over its subtler, more original ideas, and Kelly’s solipsistic smugness makes some scenes just embarrassing to watch.  The film aspires to meld a Robert Altman ensemble drama with the loopy reality-bending of Philip K. Dick, but settles for a more jokily postmodern version of Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days.  Maybe if the film’s apocalyptic scenarios weren’t so calculatingly outlandish, or maybe if its lofty political and philosophical themes were given more than a perfunctory nod, then it could’ve been the masterpiece Richard Kelly wanted.  Instead, it’s an awkward jumble, a testament to one man’s artistic obsessions, and a mediocre movie.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…aspires to meld the satirical sci-fi of Kurt Vonnegut with the mesmerising weirdness of David Lynch, but Kelly hasn’t yet found the filmmaking skill to match his vaulting imagination…”–Paul Arendt, BBC (contemporaneous)

14 thoughts on “BORDERLINE WEIRD: SOUTHLAND TALES (2006)”

  1. Shoot. I was sort of hoping someone would eliminate this movie from consideration for the List, but now it seems I have to check it out for sure, even though I doubt it makes it.

    Everyone seems to hate this movie except for J. Hoberman of the Village Voice. But I am always interested in movies that are weird because they’re deliberately abstract. I’m also interested in movies that are weird because the director’s self-indulgence caused the material to get away from him. Southland Tales sounds like it contains both deliberate and accidental weirdness simultaneously.

  2. As I’ve said earlier, SOUTHLAND TALES is the iPod Generation’s BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS… No matter what anyone says about it, good or bad, THEY’RE RIGHT!

    It’s definitely borderline.

    The Cannes cut is floating around out there – it was broadcast on UK television last year. Restores Janeane Garafalo’s role in the film, and things are in slightly different order.

  3. Ugh this movie was such a disappointment! Your comments are spot-on, Andreas, and in the end I’d say the film’s drawbacks in production, editing, writing, and plot outweigh its considerable weirdness. Despite how strange it is, it ends up being sort of boring because there’s just no way to get a handle on any of the numerous characters or plot developments.

    And that Justin Timberlake lip-syncing scene is definitely the best part, you’re right.

  4. Yeah, now I’m also in the same boat. As much as I liked Darko, I really had no desire to see this or Kelly’s The Box. Mainly because of how bad they were panned by the critics and also because the trailers I viewed for both movies were terrible. Now I feel obligated that I at least have to check out this one. It’s never a good sign though when my local used DVD store has multiple copies listed at $2.00 apiece. Oh well, at least I can buy it with with a pocket full of dirty change.

  5. It’s worth pocket change just to see what the fuss is about. But I have to agree that Andreas is right on the money.

  6. Judging by mostly negative comments and reviews, it seems that I’m one of those rare viewers who liked the chaotic beauty of ST. In fact, I liked it so much I had to watch it again shortly after the first viewing which made me almost euphoric. Kelly was experimenting wildly & boldly, taking big chunks of artistic freedom and injecting them into this movie. It is less disappointing than The Box…

  7. THE BOX is worth a look – it’s not as weird as DARKO or ST, but it’s rather uneven, since Kelly’s obsessions outweigh the Matheson story that’s being adapted (and is pretty much taken care of within the first 35 minutes).

    One more thing about ST:

    Some 28 years ago, Richard Brooks did a film called WRONG IS RIGHT, which was billed as a satire – critics pummelled it and audiences stayed away. You watch it now, and it’s like it was filmed within the last 8 years – most of it’s satire has now become our history.

    Sometimes you need some distance to fully understand what you’re seeing in a mirror…

  8. Thanks for all the feedback. I initially thought, “There’s no way this CAN’T go on the List…” because it seems tailor-made to be a WEIRD movie. But the quality issues just kept dragging it down. It’s very close, though, and I’d definitely be interested in tracking down the Cannes cut. Enjoyable, yes, but if only it came in smaller doses. (That said, ST would’ve made a much better TV show.)

  9. If I could defend this film in a few words: I don’t think anything here is superfluous – in fact, I think what you’re looking at is what happens when you taken 10 hours’ worth of ideas and try to fit them into 2.5 hours. I’m also pretty sure Kelly would say there’s nothing nonsensical here, either; it all makes perfect sense, when fit into the bigger picture.

    That said, there’s something that succeeds in ST thematically: the image versus reality, the hyper-excess, the posturing and double-identities virtually every character assumes. Watching it should give you the feeling like you’re looking at pieces of a puzzle that, individually, don’t make sense, but if you could only pull back enough to see the bigger picture, it would all become clear. Being lost in that sense of disorientation is what this film is all about.

  10. Come on. Another slam dunk for the weird list. You actually think this is less weird than “Tromeo & Juliet?” “Southland Tales” has so much more imagination (and far better filmmaking). I’d kick a couple of films off the list to get this one on.

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