Over the brief lifespan of Austin's Fantastic Fest the AICN sponsored secret screenings stand as a significant highlight, offering early unannounced looks at hotly anticipated titles. The first of this year's secret screenings was unveiled tonight with Richard Kelly's long delayed follow up to Donnie Darko, Southland Tales, playing to a packed house with Kelly himself in the audience. Utterly despised by audiences in Cannes two years ago when it screened in an early, rough form, the film screened here in its just completed final version, nearly twenty minutes shorter than the Cannes cut. The verdict? Most of the complaints about the film are accurate to varying degrees. It is overly ambitious, incredibly dense with ideas often obscured by stylish diversions, and a prime example of pop culture philosophy in action. If Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain was too obscure and cerebral for mainstream audiences then Southland Tales, a more challenging film by far, is destined to die a quick and unpleasant death at the box office. That said, for those who make it through the initial overload of information and can latch on to Kelly's vibe, Southland is also a dazzlingly smart, funny, and engaging work, one that fuses political fears with apocalyptic religiosity and techno-dread and wraps it all in a glossy, colorful package. Southland Tales is far from the mess it has been made out to be, a work that rewards as much as it challenges and succeeds in finding the human, emotional core lurking beneath all of its high concepts.
It is near future, 2008. Texas has been struck by twin terrorist attacks, nuclear strikes eliminating two entire cities. The federal government has assumed regulatory control over the internet and stepped up electronic monitoring of the citizenry. Travel visas are now required to cross state lines. World War Three has begun with fronts in Iran, Syria and North Korea. The draft is on. The oil supply has been largely cut off by the war effort, alternate energy sources are now a must, energy salvation coming in the form of the Utopia Three project, a sort of perpetual energy machine that draws power from the ocean. Extremist left wing groups are taking up guerrilla military strikes against the dominant conservatives. In this environment a famous actor, married into a political family, disappears deep in the desert. He reappears days later in Los Angeles, amnesiac, where he writes a strangely prescient movie script with a media-darling porn queen predicting a coming apocalypse. Simultaneously the dominant resistance group recruits a second amnesiac man to replace his identical twin brother in a plan to blackmail and humiliate the local congressman.
Intricately plotted with numerous simultaneous threads - what's above only scratches the surface - Southland Tales bombards the audience with ideas, characters and scenarios. This is a film driven by the ideas and obsessions of its creator and fans of Donnie Darko will find many familiar tropes revisted. Once again there are time loops, apocalyptic scenarios, and seemingly everyday characters caught up by forces beyond their control or understanding. But where Darko rooted its drama in family dynamics Southland Tales operates with a far larger scope of vision, tackling issues of global politics, foreign policy, sustainable energy, media obsession and more. That larger scale is both the film's biggest attraction and largest curse. Kelly casts his net so wide that he cannot fail to pull in potent images and concepts by the boatload but the scale is so ambitious that it can also be distancing and overwhelming.
What saves the film from collapsing under its own weight is the stellar cast Kelly has assembled. The marquee features a trio of recognizable names - Sarah Michelle Gellar, Sean William Scott and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson - all cast strongly against type and that novel approach continues throughout the film with recognizable, and largely neglected, faces popping up throughout in surprising ways. The cast is enormous with so many interweaving stories that it is difficult to accurately label any of the players a true lead but Johnson is clearly the star of the show, this is his film through and through and he delivers an absolutely magnetic performance. Johnson obviously has depths to him that he has seldom been allow to show so far, the man is a legitimate star with enormous personal charisma and surprising range, and needs badly to be freed from the constant stream of trite family friendly films that he is currently trapped in. The sheer style of Kelly's work - there are few who use and manipulate music nearly as well and effortlessly as he does - will hook many but together with his performers he finds a surprisingly effective human heart to things.
Sure to frustrate many Southland Tales is a film that will not just reward multiple viewings but will very clearly require them. It is enormously ambitious, perhaps too much so, but in a world where films are so often focus-grouped to death and broken down to the lowest common denominator the sin of ambition is one that should be embraced, one that confirms Richard Kelly as one of the most fascinating and promising young voices in American film.