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: (more…)