Southland Tales: A Case of Intriguing Befuddlement

Southland Tales

Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales is not a great movie. Too much time is spent following characters that have little to do with the emotional center of the film – it almost feels as if Kelly didn’t trust the core of his story and so brought all of the subplots to the forefront (though that isn’t the truth and I’ll get back to that.) We follow all of these tangential storylines that one after the other fade away leaving us with an accomplished final twenty minutes of film, one that has baffled many viewers, but I found to be powerful enough and understandable enough to have stood alone as a movie. Of course, we all know, or maybe not, the story of how Southland Tales came to be.

An unfinished cut premiered at Cannes and was booed by the audience…those French are apparently difficult to please. The studio said they wouldn’t release it unless the film was cut down… and now the studios are listening to the French? The first studio said by an hour, the second studio only twenty minutes. So Kelly recut, keeping the “sellable” stars in the foreground, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Sarah Michelle Gellar, and keeping in the background the central theme of the film represented by Sean William Scott and Justin Timberlake. Both now seem less important than all of the other minor characters of the film. It’s truly frustrating to feel like a chunk of the film was missing as I watched. It almost feels like watching the cut the studio put together for television of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.

Even though it feels like a mess, it is a well thought out mess with a lot of ideas; an influx of ideas that I feel comes closer to representing our post 9-11 hysteria and uprooted sense of safety and perception in the years following the collapse of the twin towers than any other film has done. How Kelly achieves this is by multiplying the devastating attacks by a thousand. We’re greeted in the first 5 minutes of the film by a nuclear explosion on US soil followed by a blanket of information age updates that follows uniformly with the neurotic news broadcasts that throw so much information at us in boxes and scrolling text and announcements that it’s hard to tell what’s important and what’s not. Familiar words and phrases keep us grounded in reality: “This is the worst attack on US soil,” one news reporter proclaims and talk of a heightened Patriot Act is equated with an image of an elephant mounting another. Ah, so it’s satire that Kelly has in mind. A news broadcast with a porn star Krysta Now played by Sarah Michelle Gellar that deals with everything from politics to teen horniness being okay only cements this idea. And that’s where the biggest problem of the film rests. None of the satire is really that funny. Sure it makes a point but everything is directed, edited and scored with a distant coldness that keeps the comedy at arm’s length. This has nothing to do with the studios, but everything to do with Kelly’s choices as a creator. Relying on easy jabs at the porn industry is not the ultimate joke in a world close to apocalyptic meltdown. But the idea is interesting when you reflect upon how the citizens of the US view a shallow porn star’s ideas as something to be seriously thought about. The idea is interesting, because whether Kelly means to infer it or not, it’s our idea and not one he deals with, because before we know it his ADD induced world has moved on to other territory. He goes as far as casting comedians in roles that require no comedic skills, or gives comedians very few funny situations to deal with. It’s a strange middle ground that tells me Kelly didn’t quite know what he wanted the tone of his film to be, but somewhere strongly in the middle. A faux murder that goes wrong is the funniest moment of this middling film. Back to the story:

Holed up at Gellar’s place is one of the biggest actor superstars known to the world, Boxer Santaros, played by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, whose been directed down the road of quirky abstractness. It could have something to do with what happened to him when he went missing in the desert for three days (certainly a prophetic number) before stumbling back into Hollywood and into the arms and bed of Krysta Now. The narrator tells us that they have written a script together that tells the reality of the destruction of the world that is literally to come, as if Santaros has seen into the future, the only problem is his amnesia, he doesn’t know it’s actually going to happen. We spend a lot of time with these characters, but in the end they seem to have more to do with explaining the part of the story we don’t get to see than actually being a part of the story, which to a certain point is clever, but also frustrating.

Everybody wants a piece of Santaros, who also goes by Jericho Caine (a prophetic name if I’ve ever seen one – those walls came a tumblin’ down!), who is not only a superstar but also an influential Republican who is to marry the daughter of a Republican Senator running for President (and my those walls are high!) They want him back, but not before a group of insane Marxist rebels try to set him up for taking part in a murder. They get Sean William Scott, who plays what we are told to be twins, but turns out to be a far more intriguing part of the story (and eventually that emotional core I was speaking of.) The good twin, who is a cop, is taken hostage and replaced by the bad twin, who also has amnesia. The bad twin, as cop, takes Santaros along with him as training for his next role, in the script he has written…it would seem a cop is going to bring about the end of the world…bah bah baaaaaah!

Confused yet? And my explanation is far more coherent than the film. From here of course planned events fall apart and things go terribly awry, for everybody. To explain anything further would confuse you and give away the continuing intrigues the film has to offer, which when thought about in retrospect is funnier and makes me giggle more now than while actually watching it.

The film ends up taking place, from what I can tell, in the same universe as Donnie Darko, Richard Kelly’s pop-philosophical directorial debut. Some of the heavy science fiction elements carry over, like jumping back in time and a 4th dimension that could bring about the apocalypse – though it takes until the third act to truly bring these elements to the foreground. I felt like the story in Darko was like an episode of Star Trek: the Next Generation. Though I did like it I never ended up seeing the Directors Cut, probably because I understood the original well enough.

Kelly is ultimately, more than anyone else these days, working in the heady sci-fi world of Philip K. Dick. One has only to read a few of Dick’s novels to get the impression that his writings have influenced the apocalyptic moody worlds of the near future that Kelly wanders through. But Kelly is also working in the world of a comic book fan boy, one who melds pop culture and literary worlds together. He is an uber-geek (influenced more by the likes of Alan Moore than Todd Macfarlane), who’s thoughts are so scattered and unfiltered that it’s difficult for me to not appreciate his films. And who also casts people only an uber geek would love, people like John Laroquette (whom I love) and Christopher Lambert and many more surprising faces. Wanting to use that uber-geekiness while trying to break away from its constraints is also an interesting dilemma we see in Kelly’s films, I wonder in the end if one will win out over the other.

Though this is just a review I hope to go more in depth and discuss the meaning of the film in more detail in a later post, because I think a film with this much thought put into it deserves it. I’ll also be taking a look at the graphic novels that constitute the parts 1-3 that the movie infers exists by starting with part IV, and adding that to my analysis.

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