Southland Tales
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144 min.
Release Date
Southland Tales

Writer-director Richard Kelly debuted his talent for metaphysical, cinematic puzzlemaking in 2002, with the modest-masterpiece Donnie Darko, which, when viewing, an audience no doubt feels confused, but tries to work through the plot and discover its brilliant mysteries. Despite its complications, Donnie Darko has a salient narrative, with sympathetic characters, and even a sort-of resolution. Not the case with his second feature, Southland Tales. After pondering Kelly’s follow-up, I realize that keeping with traditional movie review schema and describing the plot to you would be pointless. Why, you ask? Because I cannot describe, nor critique, a plot that doesn’t make sense. My first thought was that perhaps Southland Tales represents Kelly’s stab at non-narrative, avant-garde cinema—that the movie’s inconsistent tone and bizarre characters were part of his method to evoke a sense of confusion and anxiety from his viewers. Alas, I believe there to be some semblance of narrative present, just a stupid and nonsensical one.

For those of you familiar with Donnie Darko, recurring themes offer more implication than there exists between Kelly’s two works. Since both deal with concepts of time travel, apocalyptic visions, suicide, and whirlpool-like tunnels breaching space-time, it might seem that Kelly has concocted some brilliant riddle that can only be understood by viewing Donnie Darko and Southland Tales back-to-back, or in reverse, or to Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Back, forth, upside-down, or in Portuguese, this movie makes no sense.

In a fantastical 2008 timeline, terrorist nuclear attacks have struck Texas, initiating World War III between the U.S., several countries in the Middle East, and North Korea. We follow actor Boxer Santaros (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) as he awakens from amnesia, finding himself under the care of porno star Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar). Together, they write a screenplay called “The Power” that prophesies the coming apocalypse. In researching his role, Boxer participates in a ride-along with cop Ronald Taverner (Sean William Scott), only Taverner isn’t a cop, his twin brother is the cop—but is that his twin brother? And then there are the neo-Marxists, who are attempting to usurp the government with blackmail. Somehow, all of this relates to a Blade Runner-esque blimp, a new power supply derived from ocean waves, and Cheri Oteri. And if you’re wondering how any of this correlates, the connections are so thin and inconsequential that they’re damned near invisible.

Kelly was indeed meshing his previous ideas with that of Philip K. Dick’s award-winning novel Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said. Dick’s book followed a world-renowned television personality who loses his memory and then loses himself in a troubled city. Southland Tales involves a movie star who loses his memory, and then loses himself in a troubled city. Kelly quotes Flow My Tears directly, and even names his “cop” Taverner after Dick’s protagonist. As an avid Philip K. Dick reader, I am offended that Kelly would make references to Dick’s output while getting his work so very wrong, trying desperately to attain Dick’s sense of future dread and worldly disembodiment. Kelly forgets that while Dick’s fiction often entered arenas of intangibility, there was, at the very least, ground to stand on.

Expanding on Kelly’s reliance on literary sources, we’re bombarded with quotes from Revelations, Robert Frost, and T.S. Eliot, which attempt to draw out whatever it is Kelly is trying to say. And what is it, exactly, that he’s trying to say? I have no idea. It all seems profoundly important, with Kelly drowning his dialogue in Twin Peaks laden clichés. “I had a dream last night…” precedes most of the film’s revelatory moments, even from the silliest characters. And just when Kelly shows us something we think is of consequence, it’s never mentioned again, thus rendered pointless.

Southland Tales borders on satire, but also has nodes of dystopian sci-fi, political commentary, and comedy, not to mention the musical genre. In one scene, Justin Timberlake injects Liquid Karma (not worth explaining) into his neck, and lip-synchs “All These Things That I’ve Done” by The Killers, walking about in super-cool pop star fashion, with dancing girls drooling over him. Surely this says something about his ex-soldier character, who holds onto the chorus’ line “I’ve got soul, but I’m not a soldier” like an anti-war banner.

Kelly compiles what is certainly an eclectic, if not misplaced cast, adding to the movie’s absolute absurdity in every scene. John Larroquette, Christopher Lambert, Mandy Moore, and Kevin Smith all show their faces as brief subplot characters, but they’re interesting only because of the peculiar casting—especially, when Curtis Armstrong (better known as Booger from Revenge of the Nerds) appears. Much of Kelly’s cast comes from TV; the majority are Saturday Night Live and sketch comedy alum:  John Lovitz plays a hitman; the aforementioned Cheri Oteri a drug-dealing badass psychotic; Amy Poehler a rebel poet; Nora Dunn as Deep Throat II; and Will Sasso as a hired goon.

Here we see what happens when a filmmaker goes wild and no one is willing to restrain him. I am the greatest believer in allowing a director to freely tell his or her story, but sometimes that story just plain sucks. Last year at Cannes, Kelly’s movie was booed gloriously. Upon rethinking his vision, twenty minutes were chopped from his nearly 3-hour Cannes cut. Now, his movie resides at 144 minutes—two and a half of the longest viewing hours this year. Not only is Southland Tales a major disappointment, its insulting. I might recommend seeing it, only because it could give you a chuckle here and there (at, not with), but it’s too damned long even for oddity’s sake. I have no doubt Richard Kelly will go on to make better movies. But oh, how far he’s fallen from his Donnie Darko standard.

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