Film Review: Southland Tales (2008)

Richard Kelly’s audacious Donnie Darko burst into our collective culture at the beginning of the 2000s. Its subject matter was eerily congruent with our own seemingly apocalyptic times. Yet after garnering critical and financial goodwill, not to mention muscling into the Hot Topic market, Kelly went into a period of inactivity that seemed to border on a temporary retirement.

Half a decade later, Kelly would reemerge with his long-awaited follow-up: the similarly themed Southland Tales. An inimitable, incoherent and utter mess of a film, Southland Tales is essentially a fusion of the comedy, drama, science fiction, musical and satire genres. However, it doesn’t really work as an effective expression of any of them.

Southland Tales possesses a storyline that is so utterly convoluted and so dependent on expository information (there are three comic books which allegedly help explain its obtuse plot) that there is very little point in attempting to offer an in-depth summation. Essentially, the film revolves around the United States responding to a nuclear attack in the state of Texas. The film then jumps forward in time to the Los Angeles seaside, where former members of the SNL troupe (including Cheri Oteri, Jon Lovitz, Amy Poehler and Nora Dunn) play members of a Neo-Marxist group of subversives who seek to fight back against a U.S government that has expanded its legal and constitutional reach following the disaster.

Southland Tales is an ensemble piece. The closest it has to main characters is Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson), an actor with amnesia; an L.A police officer named Roland Taverner (Minnesota’s favorite son, Seann William Scott); and former porn star turned media pundit named Krysta Now, brought to life by Buffy the Vampire slayer herself, Sarah Michelle Gellar. All of these characters find themselves caught up in what appears to be a vague, indecipherable conspiracy, while the world is simultaneously being threatened by a complete social and environmental meltdown, or something. Oh, Justin Timberlake also appears with his face covered in scars, lip-synching to “I’ve Got Soul but I’m Not a Soldier” and functions as a sort of omnipresent narrator for the events of the film.

What is immediately clear is that Southland Tales can not be interpreted in a traditional storytelling sense; the characters are undeveloped, the pacing is erratic at best and the story does not make a lick of sense. Also, the tone of the film is difficult to accept. It lurches between a crude, almost vaudevillian style, to one of lyric poignancy in a matter of seconds. Kelly has spoken of Phillip K. Dick as being one of his major influences, and one can see some connections.

The arc of Johnson’s Boxer Santaros is one example of this influence. The character finds his life beginning to curiously mirror the story of a character from his screenplay named Jericho Cane – coincidentally the name of an Arnold Schwarzenegger character in the action film End of Days. It is ambiguous if Kelly was attempting to also interweave a deconstruction of the action movie star into his already confusing thematic tapestry. All that’s clear is that the Dickian trope of uncertain reality is something that Kelly successfully channels in Southland Tales.

That’s pretty much where the comparisons end, however, as Kelly’s grasp on satire becomes ultimately diluted due to the narrative’s incoherence. Also, the comedic aspects of the film miss the mark, with Kelly’s script being riddled with bizarre, jaw-dropping lines that might be more amusing if one were to watch the film under the influence. There were plenty of wacky lines in Donnie Darko as well (such as the “suck a fuck” line); but Kelly’s sensibility for dubious screenwriting goes even further in Southland Tales. A majority of the lines are so outlandish that it directly affects the performances of the actors, which are wildly hit or miss to begin with.

Still, Southland Tales is not the definitive stinker that a majority of “critics” would like the world to believe. The film has a real mood to it, and its existence makes perfect sense in our post-9-11 world, where the activities of those in government are clandestine at best, and the specter of another apocalyptic horror seems ubiquitous and constant. This effect is strongly due to Moby’s powerful score, whose work in the film helps stifle some of Kelly bizarre fetishes and imbues certain scenes with an actual sense of moving grace or palpable tension. This may not elevate it to being Donnie Darko – Part II by any means, but Southland Tales is a risk taker, and its gonzo sensibility also makes it more than worthy of a viewing

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