Review: Southland Tales


Southland Tales | Richard Kelly | November 14, 2007

Let me know when you get lost, On July 4th, 2005 terrorists attacked the United States with suitcase nuclear bombs, in the fallout of the attacks, the United States officially enters into World War 3, a global conflict fought in Iraq, Iran, Syria, etc. Meanwhile, the shadowy Treer Organization has developed the world’s first perpetual motion machine, an environmentally sustainable alternative energy source which capitalizes on the natural currents of the Ocean. Concurrently, the world’s eyes are on Boxer Santaros (The Rock), a big-time Hollywood action star, married to the daughter of Senator Bobby Frost, Republican vice-presidential nominee.

Set against the days preceding the 2008 presidential election, Richard Kelly’s (Donnie Darko) sophomore film, Southland Tales, unravels the story of Boxer Santaros as he amnesically awakes  in Venice Beach on the brink of destruction, where Iraq war veteran’s keep armed sentinel over a city headed into a new decade amidst political tensions between the extreme-left Neo-Marxist movement and the right-wing politicians in power who have the whole of United States media, and the internet, under the watchful gaze of their surveillance organization, USIDent.

Santaros hooks up with Krista Now (Sarah Michelle-Gellar), a porn-star, and television pundit in pursuit of creating a cross-media commercial empire. Santaros and Now develop a script for a film set in the near future where a paranoid-schizophrenic movie-star discovers that the world’s rotation is “slowing down at a rate of point zero, zero, zero, zero, zero, zero, zero six miles per hour each day, disrupting the chemical equilibrium in the human brain, causing very irrational criminal behavior.”

Meanwhile, Southland is disintegrating in a wave of irrational criminal behavior, Jon Lovitz is a double-agent hard-boiled cop, Justin Timberlake is quoting the book of Revelations, The Neo-Marxists are in bed with the Treer organization, the Treer Organization is in bed with the right-wingers, and Treer’s generator off the coast of Venice Beach is causing rifts in the space time continuum, allowing two identical human souls to co-exist on planet at the same time which means “The fourth dimension will collapse upon itself. You stupid bitch.”

As you can tell, if you made it through that with a shred of sanity remaining, Southland Tales is a dense movie, labyrinthine, pain-stakingly plotted, and for all that it throws together (including three graphic novel prequels) a tough nut to crack.

I knew that Southland was something special when I saw it in theatres in 2007. It is as relevant today as it was back then, even more so in light of the Snowden revelations.

Southland Tales has been called an “incoherent and self-indulgent movie” by detractors, and a “Funny, audacious, messy and feverishly inspired look at America and its discontents” By its proponents. I’m here to say that the proponents of this flick are right, this is a terrific movie: beautiful, different, daring, exciting, hilarious, perfectly pitched and gloriously achieved.

That being said, it’s a difficult film, difficult indeed, terrifying in its implications. When Southland Tales was released it was something of a conspiracy theorist’s wet dream, even though the subplots involving global surveillance and extreme anti-governmental organizations weren’t even fantasy, they were realities given exaggerated relief in Kelly’s hideous vision of horrendous new-millenialism.

A film which for all its quantum-mysticism is grounded in human realities that were mere shadows upon its initial release, when it was surprisingly put into contention for Cannes’ coveted Palm d’or, where it bombed horribly, tarnishing its reputation and damning its delayed, cut-back theatrical release. Kelly’s film made few fans for capturing every facet of the cancerous celebrity worship, and sensationalist news media that have characterized post-9/11 America.

The closest pop-cultural comparison I can make is to the works of Phillip K. Dick, whose paranoid speculative fiction was an admitted inspiration in Richard Kelly’s conception of Southland Tales’ near future police state. This Dickian angle keeps Southland Tales from falling into any of the cyber-punk traps that pigeonholed a generation of speculative science-fiction filmmakers.

Nothing is sacred in Kelly’s vision of the now-past then near-future. From politics, to celebrity, to green engineers, and veterans, everything is at stake. Even the actors themselves were at stake, including Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s then-fledgling film career. The typically swaggering Rock is cast in Southland Tales as a damaged, sputtering action star suffering from the depersonalization associated with schizophrenia, replete with an endearing finger-twiddling nervous tick. Seann William Scott appears in his most substantial post-Stifler role as a war veteran, and Neo-Marxist posing as a racist cop.

Keep in mind, nothing is as it seems in Southland Tales, a majority of the characters are stand-ins for behind the scenes power-players, such as Wallace Shawn who plays Treer’s transvestite mastermind, Baron Von Westphalen, whose motivations are never clearly divulged. What is certain is that everything is at stake, that the social fabric of America is dismantling as is space-time.

More than just a bizarre failed experiment, Southland Tales is a story of very personal reconciliation. The Tale of a veteran’s ability to forgive himself for what he did in Fallugah, a sub-plot all the more touching with the threshold breaking PTSD epidemic gripping contemporary war veterans.

And this is only the tip of the ice berg. Through mock-television news feeds, Kelly’s implications are manifold, from battlefield telepathy to canine birth control, all manners of American excess are skewered.

The film does more than present a historiographic metafiction, Kelly’s gift for the right sights and sounds is on full display in Southland Tales. The original score by Moby is haunting and fitting, as are the secondary musical cues including an iconic use of the UK Surf remix of The Pixies’ Wave of Mutilation. As the film fades in and out of self-consciousness, so does the genre as Kelly presents the audience with song-and-dance numbers, death and destruction, and some truly skull numbing absurdism.

Southland Tales isn’t for everyone, if you thought Donnie Darko was obscure, you aren’t ready for the remote shadowlands which are Kelly’s destination in Southland Tales. It’s over the top, surreal, heavy handed, and excessive in its satirical nudging. As Kelly put it in a post-mortem interview“I was so ambitious with this one. I made this movie like I’d never get to make another movie again. If this is my only chance to do something big and crazy and ambitious and some might say self-indulgent, which is fine, if this is my chance, I’m going to go for it and I’m going to give it all I’ve got because I may not get this chance again.”

Kelly’s ambitions are consummated in a film which is not so much self-indulgent as it is unique in the director’s one-of-a-kind sensibility. Luckily, after another marginal success with The Box (2009), Richard Kelly is getting another chance in 2014 with the release of his fourth film, Amicus.

Rating: 10/10