In 2006, Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales premiered to thunderous jeer at the Cannes Film Festival. Eighteen months later, an edited version quietly limped into a handful of cinemas without so much as a whisper of marketing.
Judged as the very definition of sophomore slump by a (near) consensus of print critics, Southland Tales never achieved the miraculous comeback of Kelly’s debut feature, Donnie Darko, which as of this moment is in the midst of a glossy remastering and re-release in cinemas.
So here we are in 2017, a decade after Southland Tales ended with both a bang and a whimper.
This column aims to look with fresh eyes at the film labelled as "a slow-paced, bloated and self-indulgent picture,” by The Hollywood Reporter. That description is not inaccurate, by the way, I certainly found my mind wandering more than once during its 2h40m run-time.
I also see the film, with the benefit of hindsight, as a frozen cultural moment, and a brilliantly crystalline one at that. What America was, what America might have been, and oddly enough, what America is right now.
Despite being set during the 2008 election year, Southland Tales was conceived and shot prior to all these imminent, sea-changing items: the iPhone, Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, social media, and video-on-demand. The film serves as a channel-hopping parade of American trash-culture slightly before we all got lost staring at tiny hand-held screens, posting selfies and YouTube videos, getting outraged on Twitter, and binge-watching Netflix. Any one of these culturally embraced innovations derails the kind of near-future extrapolation Kelly is going for, and all of them make Southland Tales an alternate universe that never was. Akin to alternate history digressions where The South won the civil war, or the Nazis landed on the moon.
Southland Tales opens with the expositional voice over of a veteran of the war. A ground war in Syria. Played by Justin Timberlake, in transition from boy-band to actor, Pilot Abilene outlines (at exceptional length) the shockwaves to American geopolitics folliwing a foreign power dropping a nuclear bomb on Texas. There is no word on whether or not it was North Korea, but the ensuing conflict-amplification in the Middle East has escalated to the point of things being labeled World War 3.
The result is a global energy catastrophe. Enter clean energy guru-weirdo Baron Von Westphalen, who is not quite Elon Musk but, heck, close enough. The German-American scientist (played by Wallace Shawn at his most sinister and loopy) has just lauched his alternative energy invention, Fluid Karma, as a fossil fuel replacement. It seems to involve both harnessing the worlds ocean currents and a liquid substance generated from Earth's magnetic field that can be transmitted via wireless electricity. The latter part, electricity without wires, notable to the science-history-minded, was patented but never implemented by Nicola Tesla at the turn of the century.
Bonus: a physically distilled by-product of the Fluid Karma process also makes a fine, injectable narcotic, which naturally was experimented with via a super-soldier program.
In this hypothetical future, Hillary Clinton is running on a severely diminished Democrat ticket -- we never see her in the film, nor is she referenced in the dialogue, but her name is there in expositional infographics which often pop up in the background for those inclined to notice -- while the progressive left has radicalized into terrorist groups (seemingly all played by ex-Saturday Night Live castmembers - Nora Dunn, Amy Poehler, Jon Lovitz, Cheri Oteri) while the Republicans have doubled down on the Patriot Act and are pilot-testing a nascent super-surveillance apparatus called USIDent in Los Angeles.
We never see the Republican candidate running for president, though Donald Trump could slot in effortlessly if Richard Kelly ever decides to pull a George Lucas style Special Edition; instead, we follow the campaign of the Senator running on the ticket as Vice President, Bobby Frost, played by Darko's dad, Holmes Osborne, sporting VR sunglasses).
Frost (who occationally quotes the poet Robert Frost) is on board with the Baron’s clean energy schemes in the name of American energy independence. Meanwhile, his wife, a wickedly vampy, but somewhat underused, Miranda Richardson runs the NSA…er…USIDent. Nana May Frost acts as a kind of 'Big Sister,' and her USIDent is, naturally, an Orwellian nightmare, but one that is fused with a national cable network. If there is an Edward Snowden type character (and, yes, there is), he is gunned down by the police early on.
This is the first 40 minutes of the film. Suffice it to say, watching Southland Tales feels a bit like chilling on the couch while a pal with an itchy finger on the remote, clicks and clicks and clicks. As a viewer, one is left to absorb micro-snippets of reality television at random. And in many case inside these snippedt, the characters themselves are of also watching (or ignoring) their televisions.
If this is subtext in any way, it is clearly made text by Nana May Frost, in her room of a thousand screens, trying to makes sense of it all. Excess voice-over exposition and extraneous chapter titles only obfuscate the core concept of Richard Kelly fiddling while America burns. And with the USA, supposedly, goes the world. Southland Tales re-envisions The Book of Revelation as a 2005 media fever dream. If this behemoth of a film is not enough for you, I also recommend Kelly's screenplay for Domino, which swaps out biblical ideology swapped out for grrrrrl-power, pseudo-celebrity biography and Tony Scott's eye-meltingly hyperactive editing.
This is the point where I mention that Dwayne Johnson -- Southland Tales is where he shed his pro-wrestling handle, The Rock, which everyone, more or less, still uses to this day -- has top billing in the film. It must be said that he gives a wonderfully off-kilter performance. A decade later it is still one of his best, as his choice of movies to appear in has been mostly vanilla, bombastic blockbuster sequels, which he makes a bit more fun than they ought to be, but does not really stretch his acting chops. What he does here is an early experiment that he has never repeated.
Here he plays Boxer Santeros, a big movie star who is married to Senator Frost’s daughter (Mandy Moore), but is having an affair with Kim Kardash…er…Krysta Now. Played with a cocktail of ditzy melancholy by Sarah Michelle Gellar, the porn-star, reality TV, pop-singer, energy drink magnate famous-for-being-famous icon has written a screenplay with Boxer about the end of the world. Boxer starts to confuse ‘reality’ with his preparation for the role, and his identity as a actor with political ties blurs with that of gun slinging hero-prophet. My favourite part of all of this is that in between those fluctuations, The Rock is pretty convincing at being scared shitless; his fumbling hand gestures are just too gosh-darn sweet. It works.
At this point, even seasoned cinephiles and puzzle-box enthusiasts begin to get lost in the dense plotting and vortex of pop culture horrors: severed fingers used for voter fraud, armoured tanks - branded with Hustler and Bud Light - patrolling Hermosa Beach, The Highlander himself, Chris Lambert, peddling guns and rocket launchers out of an ice-cream truck, John Laroquette being ‘tazed’ in the testicles, Sean William Scott looking in the mirror and noting that his reflection is delayed, Booger (Curtis Armstrong) from Revenge of the Nerds explaining quantum entanglement, while Zelda Rubinstein lectures The Rock on self abnegation.
Somehow, for those who stick with the the films opaque rhythms, or in this case those who come back for a second viewing, Richard Kelly’s spew of ideological concepts begin to cohere, albeit tentatively, into an unholy-fusion of The Coens' The Big Lebowski, David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, and Mike Judge’s Idiocracy. All the while, the atomic-noir classic, Kiss Me Deadly plays on a television in the background. Yes, it does. (And it is a wonderfully offbeat classic that everyone should seek out.)
A smoky, beer-soaked, Justin Timberlake lip-synching to The Killers’ “All These Things I’ve Done” is a notable high-point in the middle of Southland Tales that absoutely brings to mind The Dude renting shoes from Saddam and teaching Brunehilde-Julianne Moore how to roll. But like a lower-rent version of that concept, it is Skee-ball instead of bowling in Kelly’s version. A later sequence on a floating ice-cream truck is reminiscent of another Lebowski dream-slash-acid-flashback.
Or take the casting of Rebekah del Rio, here singing "The Star Spangled Banner" as the impending apocalypse unfolds on an Alternative Energy Mega-Zeppelin. This is not simply a nod to Mulholland Drive'sreality splicing entr'acte, rather, it is a vigorous bit of fan-genuflection. That lip synched Roy Orbison scene in Lynch’s American-nightmare is one of my all time favourite scenes in the history of cinema. It would be easy to hate on Kelly for appropriating it, but damn if the musical number with back-up violins and a gigantic American flag doesn't bring the film back on point, kitsch, satire, and spectacle all at once.
It is here, more than two full hours in, that Southland Tales threatens to resonate. For many, if not most, viewers, this will be way too little, way too late. His ambitions for religious allegory are higher than Donnie Darko, but his narrative and humanizing instincts suffer for that kind of reaching.
The lingering elements in Kelly’s debut film are the human touches: Jenna Malone waving to Mary McDonnell in the closing shot. Drew Barrymore being fired from her job (for doing it with integrity) and howling in raw frustration. Holmes Osbourne worried that the insurance company might “fuck him on the shingle match” after part of the family home is demolished. American culture and kitsch played a minor role in the dialogue and the films 1988 context: The Smurfs, Michael Dukakis, the Married with Children sitcom, and Ed McMahon’s Star Search.
Southland Tales sees Kelly attempt to force what was effective and convincing texture in Donnie Darko into the main substance of the story, and it comes at the expense of any potential human moments; Dwayne Johnson’s herculean efforts notwithstanding. In terms of pacing, or as an entertaining package, the film remains a bit of a fiasco. But there are moments of dialogue that flirt with the sublime. For instance this tidbit, confidently delivered by Santeros when he has no reason to be confident, “I’m a pimp. And pimps don’t commit suicide.” *wink* Is it a quotable moment, or Boxer trying to convince himself to be brave in a very confusing situation? It is one of many solid moments in the final act of the film.
Overall, one might argue that Kellys ambition or intent was to paint a broad canvas of America on the verge of tearing itself apart in the 21st century, and to do it in the twitchy-gutter-fashion that Philip K. Dick was known for in the 1960s and 1970s. Dick’s prose is indeed quoted at one point and the drugs, tattoos, hubris and paranoia throughout the film are all on point.
All in all, I would say Southland Tales resonates more in the era of Donald Trump’s 140 character authoritarian-incompetence than it ever could in 2007 (or Barack Obama's historic election in 2008). And the final dance scene in the film (below) really does seems to suggest that reality TV, celebrity, porngraphy and politics will merge together for a tango before it all goes to hell in a handbasket.
In 2007 we were all way too close to the TV satellite stream of a thousand channels. In 2017, a time where we breathe in mass-customizion and on-demand culture, Southland Tales is worth another look to bear witness a future that might have been. You still may not like the experience of watching it, but you will maybe, grudgingly, admit that it is a worthy document of its time and place, with a hint of prophecy. I hope we all have a nice apocalypse.