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 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)