❉ Nick Clement revisits a unique and total vision of cinematic madness all its own.
“This is a staggeringly original piece of work, filled with loving homages to classic films, while still operating as a unique and total vision of cinematic madness all its own.”
“This is a film that takes elements of political satire, post-apocalyptic nightmare, science-fiction fantasy, romantic drama, and movie-musical and throws them all into a blender and swirls them up into a wacky, mostly digestible smoothie of a movie.”
How can one accurately “review” Richard Kelly’s mind-bendingly crazy and divisive 2006 film Southland Tales? Kelly, whose debut was the oddball cult classic Donnie Darko, half-triumphed, half-stumbled, and totally shot for the moon with his second directorial effort, which is not without an insane amount of ambition and artistic merit. A sprawling, semi-coherent, Los Angeles-based head-trip, Southland Tales feels like one of the most expensive experimental films ever made, bowing to zero concessions, devised by a mad scientist who often times feels like he’s making up new rules as he goes along. For some, Southland Tales will inevitably be a maddening viewing experience, especially upon first glance, but over the years since its polarizing initial release, I’ve grown to absolutely love the movie, despite its flaws, and I constantly feel compelled to revisit it.
The film’s rambling mid-section, at first, seemed haphazard and purposefully meandering, but I’ve realized that it’s just extra dense, and requires some careful dissection. While Kelly likely bit off more than he could chew overall, it’s impossible to completely dismiss this film the way a majority of critics did, because while not perfect, it’s a surreal, distinct vision that could only have come from a filmmaker with some serious talent and a high level of chutzpah. He’s needed the accompaniment of graphic novels and short films to serve as connective tissue to the multi-layered narrative, and recent media reports have suggested that Kelly is going back to the much-discussed original “Cannes Cut,” which was met with a plethora of boos and hisses at the iconic film festival; he’s apparently spiffing up an old print, and creating some sort of new material for either the ultimate director’s cut, or something else entirely. I don’t know – I honestly can’t keep up with all of this madness – but it’s clear that Kelly still has this movie running throughout his veins, which is awesome to notice.
Southland Tales starts off in 2005, at a backyard Fourth of July barbecue in Texas. Home video camera footage shows families playing with sparklers and eating hot dogs. Then, the unthinkable—a mushroom cloud can be seen in the horizon. An atomic bomb has been dropped in Abilene. The world is forever changed. We then jump three years into the future to Los Angeles; again, it’s July 4th, but the world we knew is gone. Society stands on the brink of social, economic and environmental disaster. A fascist government is in control with big brother lurking everywhere. Boxer Santaros (Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, pre-megastardom) is an action-movie star who’s stricken with amnesia. He crosses paths with a calculating porn star named Krysta Now (a sassy and sexy Sarah Michelle Geller), who, among other things, is developing her own reality television project. The two of them concoct a movie idea that has Boxer set to play a cop, but he needs someone to shadow.
Meanwhile, good-guy police officer Ronald Taverner (Sean William Scott, never better), agrees to allow Santaros to shadow him so he can get the feel for police life in an effort to turn in a convincing performance. But, it turns out that Taverner may hold the key to a vast conspiracy that nobody is ready to comprehend. There’s a lot more to Southland Tales than that. Radicals are stirring up a political uprising, using Venice beach and Santa Monica as their staging ground, while much of Los Angeles has been reduced to a DMZ. Armed soldiers monitor the beaches and streets with itchy trigger fingers. Then there’s the finale with two Roland Taverners, time-portals that open up into new dimensions, a floating ice cream truck, rocket launchers, and an exploding, futuristic zeppelin. There’s more…much more…but I’m at a loss to know how to summarise all of it. It’s an indulgent piece of filmmaking, going off on tangents and filling the frame with tons of visual detail, with Kelly’s regular collaborator Steven Poster handled the aggressively stylish cinematography. This is a film that takes elements of political satire, post-apocalyptic nightmare, science-fiction fantasy, romantic drama, and movie-musical and throws them all into a blender and swirls them up into a wacky, mostly digestible smoothie of a movie.
Making all of these disparate threads add up to a cohesive whole had to have been a herculean task. This is a staggeringly original piece of work, filled with loving homages to classic films, while still operating as a unique and total vision of cinematic madness all its own. While narratively over-stuffed at times, and filled with performances that veer this way one moment and the other way the next, Kelly’s film is never boring, and is fascinating on many levels, mostly because it’s satirising a world that doesn’t totally exist. Or – and here’s the rub – a world that didn’t totally exist when the film first was released. Look around us now, and clearly while not 100% approximating Kelly’s whacked-out societal kaleidoscope, we’re not too far away, especially in certain key areas. But when viewed in the context of its late 2007 release, by not basing his story in any sort of tangible or realistic setting, the audience isn’t in on the joke as much as Kelly; he’s poking fun at a world that is removed from our own, and as such, the satire sometimes feels extremely smarty-pants.
The performances are broad, and in many respects, over the top, but that was likely the directorial intention. The true acting surprise of the film was easily Sean William Scott, still best known at the time for his immortal role as ‘Stifler’ in the American Pie franchise, and here, got the chance to be someone totally different from the lovable and immature clown that he so memorably portrayed. Granted, his character (much like the audience), spends most of the film in a fog of confusion, but the charm and ease that he brings to this zany movie is very effective and emotionally engaging. I always had the sneaking suspicion that there was more to him as an actor, and throughout much of Southland Tales, he makes good on that promise. There’s a wild mix of faces and voices that pop up all throughout the film, and it’s a testament to Kelly’s original script that he was able to attract as many people as he did to a production that had to be viewed as dicey by all involved.
As Southland Tales hurtles towards its fiery climax, the film really ups the momentum and becomes something truly fantastic. The last 30 minutes are awesome in a deranged, Terry Gilliam-esque fashion, with bracing moments of chuck-it-all abandon, which makes for some delirious fun. Kelly and Poster conjure up one fantastical image after another, using the widescreen space as their ultimate surrealistic playground, riffing on commercialism, surveillance tactics, and filmmaking in general, all in effort to yield something as different as possible. Kelly re-edited his film extensively after the initial three hour cut was derided at Cannes, which in retrospect, was the absolute worst place for his film to debut, especially in an unfinished state. He snipped about 30 minutes from the run time, got rid of entire characters (Janeane Garofalo was a cast-casualty), and added some special effects; I’d love to see his initial cut for the sake of comparison. A film this creative, unique, and brazen could only come from an individual with an enormous imagination, and in today’s cookie-cutter Hollywood landscape, Kelly deserves points for making a film as out there as this one, which easily ranks as one of the most ambitious if perplexing films I’ve ever come across, one that will likely improve over time as the social landscape changes.
❉ ‘Southland Tales’ is currently available to stream from Amazon Prime, from £2.49.
❉ Nick Clement is a journalist for Variety Magazine and motion picture screenplay consultant, as well as a critic for websites We Are Cult and Back to the Movies. He wrote the introduction to the book Double Features: Big Ideas in Film, which was published by The Great Books Foundation, and is currently working on a book about the life and work of filmmaker Tony Scott. He lives in Connecticut with his wife and son.