Southland Tales

480_southland-tales-dvd.jpgIf you can imagine a cinematic

cross-breed implicating David Lynch, P.T. Anderson, and Saturday

Night Live in its interspecies couplings, you’ll be on the way to

understanding what Richard Kelly – the moody auteur whose major achievements to date are the brooding metaphysical horror-comedy

Donnie Darko and the screenplay for Domino – has wrought with his

satiric science-fiction opus, Southland Tales. It’s a rambling, baffling, multi-story yarn about a movie star (Duane Johnson, still

better known as The Rock), a porn star (Sarah Michelle Gellar, still

better known as Buffy), a couple of soldiers recently returned from

Iraq (Seann William Scott and Justin Timberlake), and a 2008

presidential bid by the Eliot/Frost ticket (Kelly dots his

screenplay with well-known quotes from both T.S. Eliot and Robert

Frost), running against Democrats (ha!) Clinton and Lieberman. The

Internet and interstate travel are both under government-mandated

lockdown, the U.S. Army has invaded Syria (and god knows where else),

and a rift in the space/time continuum has opened near Lake Mead.

Any plot synopsis is going to make

Southland Tales sound several times more entertaining than it actually

is. Rather amazingly for a film with such a plethora of ideas, the

narrative seems utterly bereft. There’s no denying Kelly’s

audaciousness: it’s a two-and-a-half-hour shaggy-dog story taking so

many potshots at celebrity culture, political scandal, and U.S. foreign policy that any viewer sympathetic to Kelly’s worldview will

probably be rooting for it. And for about 10 or 20 minutes, Kelly

hits his marks as often as he misses. Much of the exposition in the

first reel is delivered via TV screens playing a parody of CNN, with

a news crawl at the bottom of the picture and tiny logos alongside

the main picture indicating the sponsorship of Panasonic, Bud Light,

and Hustler. The joking-around Kelly does in his film’s own margins

is often worth a chuckle, but the bulk of Southland Tales is deadly

exposition of Kelly’s resolutely daffy plotline. Because Boxer

Santaros (Johnson) suffers from amnesia, a large proportion of the

film’s running time consists of scenes in which characters advance

the story by explaining things to him.

There are a few actual show-don’t-tell

plot points that feel barely related to each other – a botched

attempt at staging a fake double-murder, an assassination-by-sniper

on the Santa Monica beach, and a climactic party/riot in the streets

of downtown Los Angeles as a giant Republican dirigible floats

overhead that made me want to watch Strange Days again. An

ambient-techno score by Moby runs underneath most of the film, a

device that’s only partially successful at unifying the wildly

disparate storylines the way a DJ’s sensibility might bridge the differences between

unrelated tracks. Kelly’s trifles are more satisfying, like the

out-of-nowhere set piece that has Timberlake lip-syncing his way

through “All These Things That I’ve Done,” or the strangely

moving dance choreography that puts on pause the action climax, in

which an ice-cream truck looses the surly bonds of earth and a

pissed-off military draftee channels his anger into a random but fat

opportunity to stick it to the man.

Complaints about the incoherence of the

story or the breathtakingly sophomoric dialogue might miss the point

if Kelly were on top of his game as a filmmaker. But when it’s not

being obstinately stupid, Southland Tales is just difficult to watch.

The widescreen cinematography is wasted on mostly bland set-ups and

compositions, none of the actors (except maybe Johnson, who twiddles

thumbs and fingers with the consistency of a man who’s actually been

given direction) seem to know exactly what kind of movie they’re in,

and the visual-effects shots in the final reel feel unfinished. Even

the grace notes (like Johnson’s declaration, late in the film,

“I’m a pimp; pimps don’t commit suicide”) get overextended into


At 144 minutes, Southland Tales could only benefit from

another tight edit – this version already represents a post-Cannes

trim and tweak — but writer Richard Kelly’s screenplay is so

diffuse and unmanageable that I’m not sure what director Richard

Kelly could find to cut. Curious cinephiles will want to check this

out regardless, and the sheer weirdness of the enterprise means it

may well become some kind of cult classic in the not-too-distant

future. But if you’re looking for the new movie by the guy who made

Donnie Darko, don’t get your hopes up. This one is by the guy who

wrote Domino. D

Image: Southland Tales, 2006, Samuel Goldwyn Films

One Reply to “Southland Tales”

  1. Read the prequel before casting judgment… It fills in the details (like not having a bowel movement for a week).

    What Kelly has done is create a very complete resived history. The movie covers the last three days prior to the apocalypse. Many parties have a hand in this, and that’s why the movie seems convoluted. They are all related, much more closely than you could imagine.

    And the Timberlake bit with “All These Things” is his trip after taking Fluid Karma. But his suffering defeats the drug, he can’t even enjoy the trip.

    Anyway, the graphic novel prequel covers just about any detail you need to understand the movie (including the prison with walls of sand, the origin of the screenplay, and large excerpts from the screenplay which help a lot).

    The depth of the entire story is awesome.

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