Richard Kelly is a talented writer/director who scored big with his first film, modern cult classic Donnie Darko. I was in love with the ominous yet inspired Darko from the moment I saw it, which, not to toot my own horn, was February 2002, way before the cult got started. I have been eagerly anticipating Southland Tales, Kelly’s writing/directing follow-up, even after its notorious 2006 Cannes Film Festival reception where critics readily cited terms like “indulgent,” “bloated,” “messy,” and, “disaster.” My love of Darko shielded me from such negative affronts, and so I watched Southland Tales undaunted and with as open a mind as possible. The regrettable truth is that even after Kelly shaved off a half-hour from the Cannes version, Southland Tales is every bit a mess as had been advertised; however, it is occasionally worthwhile and subversively ambitious.
Kelly begins his massive yarn with a nuclear attack on Abilene, Texas in 2005. America is plunged into World War III and fights, simultaneously, Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, and North Korea, while the conflict with Iraq continues. The Internet is now in control of the government, who passes sweeping security measures, chief among them IdentiCorp. This government arm uses thousands of trained cameras to keep watch over the lives of ordinary citizens, including when they duck into public bathroom stalls. Violent neo-Marxist groups have placed cells around the country, ready and willing to strike to destroy the last vestiges of American capitalism.
Fuel resources have almost run dry and the world looks to scientist Baron Von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn, hamming it up and having a good time) for a solution. The Baron has devised a substance known as Fluid Karma, which works under the properties of the churning oceans and will produce a radius of power. Fluid Karma also works as a powerful hallucinogenic drug and the Baron tested it on wounded Iraqi vets like Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake). Coldly narrating the film, Abilene stands guard outside the Baron’s laboratory and also peddles the drug on the side.
It is the summer of 2008 and the presidential election is months away. The Republican candidate, Senator Bobby Frost (Holmes Osborne), is in crisis mode. His spoiled daughter (Mandy Moore) is frantic because her husband, actor Boxer Santaros (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), has vanished. He’s awakened in the California desert with amnesia and shacked up with porn star Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar); the duo has written a prophetic screenplay called “The Power.” Krysta and a pair of tattoo babes (Nora Dunn) plan to blackmail the Frost campaign with video of Boxer frolicking with the adult movie star. They want the campaign to endorse Proposition 69, which would rescind the encroachments on civil liberties by the U.S. government.
A group of neo-Marxists, led by pint-sized Zora Carmichaels (Cheri Oteri), have kidnapped a police officer, Roland Taverner, and are using his twin brother Ronald (both played by Seann William Scott) to frame the police and Boxer. And I haven’t even begun to talk about Senator Frost’s wife (Miranda Richardson), the president of Japan having his hand lopped off in a loony sequence, the frequent inverting of T.S. Elitot’s quote about the way the world ends, a commercial where two cars literally have sex, and a rip in the space-time continuum that people are putting monkeys inside.
Extraordinarily messy and scattershot, Southland Tales has 1000 ideas rolling around inside without much traction. It’s as if Kelly thought he was never going to get the chance to make another movie again so he crammed every thought and topic he ever had into one 144-minute cross-pollinated jumble. The movie veers wildly and chaotically from political satire, to crude comedy, to sci-fi head-trip, all the way to Busby Berkley musical. There’s a little of everything here but few of the dispirited elements mesh and the film runs a good two hours before any sort of overall context becomes remotely approachable. One second the movie is satirizing a Big Brother control state and the loss of American civil liberties, and in the next second a character is threatening to kill herself unless Boxer allows her to orally pleasure him. You got, among other things, zeppelins, global deceleration, perpetual motion machines, Zelda Rubenstein, drugs, holes in time, twins, a murderous Jon Lovitz, ice cream trucks that house military-grade weapons, blackmail, Kevin Smith in a ZZ Top beard and no legs, reality TV, the American national anthem cut together with an ATM robbery, Biblical Revelation quotes courtesy of Timberlake, and, why not, the end of the world. What does it all mean? I have no idea but I credit Kelly for his ambition.
Plenty of stuff happens for a solid two hours but little to nothing feels like it amounts to anything, and several subplots just get dropped. There are long stretches where I cannot explain even “what’s happening” from a literal description. This sprawling, magnificently self-indulgent meditative opus consists too much of side characters running into each other and having vague, pseudo-intellectual conversations that go nowhere. There are a lot of nonsensical speed bumps in this narrative. Sometimes the screen is just nothing but a series of newscasts overloading the audience with details on the reality of this alternative America; it’s filler. The conclusion is rather frustratingly abrupt; after slogging through two-plus hours of oblique questions it finally seems like we may reach some tentative answers, and then Kelly pulls the pin on his grenade and collapses his tale. Krysta tells Boxer in a moment of clarity, “It had to end this way.” Really? It did? This way?
The movie feels like a giant garage sale with scattered treasures hard to find but buried beneath loads of kitsch. Kelly clearly has bitten off more than he can chew and yet there is a bizarre undeniable power to some moments here. Roland (or is it Ronald) Taverner watches his mirror reflection a step behind; it’s unsettling and eerie and very cool. Timberlake has a drug-induced dance number where his scarred (both physically and mentally) Iraq veteran character is covered in blood, drinks beer, and lip synchs to the Killers’ song “All the Things I’ve Done,” which has the pertinent lyrics, “I’ve got soul but I’m not a solider,” and “You gotta help me out.” All the while, leggy dancing girls in blonde bobs strut and coo around him. It’s weird and tangential to the plot but it has a certain draw to it. The conclusion featuring the Taverner twins seeking forgiveness even generates some redemptive quality. Religious questioning and the philosophy of souls occupying the same realm plays a heavy part and gives the film an approachable reflection that tickles the brain, even if Timecop, sort of, visited the same ground, albeit secular, first (you’ll kind of understand when you see the movie). Southland Tales is grasping at profound and relevant messages, and yet some images achieve this easily, like a toy soldier crawling on the L.A. streets or a tank with Hustler stamped across its side for product placement. These simple images are able to transcend Kelly’s pop manifesto.
None of the actors really equip themselves well with the outrageousness. Scott comes off the best but that’s because his character(s) is/are the only figure(s) the audience is given a chance to emotionally connect with. The Rock, listed for the first time simply as Dwayne Johnson, is an actor that I genuinely like and think has tremendous comic ability, as evidenced by 2003’s The Rundown. With this film, however, he comes across too constantly bewildered and shifty, like he really needs to pee and cannot find a bathroom. Gellar is woefully miscast and I think she knows it given her leaden performance. Southland Tales is the kind of film where every role, even the two-bit nothing parts, is played by a known face, be it Christopher Lambert, John Larroquette, Curtis “Booger” Armstrong, Will Sasso, and a horde of Saturday Night Live alums.
Kelly’s previous film succeeded partially because an audience was able to relate and care about the central characters, which is not the case with the comically broad Southland Tales. Kelly seems to work best when he has some restraint, be it financially or artistically; the director’s cut of Donnie Darko explained far too much and took some of the magic out of interpreting the movie on your own terms. Southland Tales runs wildly in the opposite direction and is a giant mess unseen in Hollywood for some time, though for the doomsayers comparing Southland Tales to studio-killing, self-indulgent, era-defining Heaven’s Gate, may I argue that Oliver Stone’s Alexander was far more self-indulgent, longer, wackier, and duller. Due to its unpredictable nature, you can never say Southland Tales is boring.
Southland Tales the movie begins as Chapter Four of Kelly’s saga, the first three chapters being made into comic books, and really, when I think about it, a comic book is the right medium for this material. The confines of narrative film are too daunting for Kelly’s overloaded imagination. Southland Tales is oblique, incoherent, strange, and unfocused but not without merit. I doubt Kelly will ever be given the same artistic legroom to create another picture like this, so perhaps Southland Tales has helped to reign in Kelly’s filmmaking. A reigned-in Kelly is where he does his best work, and I look forward to Kelly’s remake of Richard Matheson’s story, “The Box,” presumably with no dance numbers and sexually active motor vehicles.
Nate’s Grade: C