Southland Tales (2007)

Recovered from the desert with no memory of who he is or how he got there, action star Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson) pens a screenplay with ex-porn star Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar) which inadvertently predicts the end of the world. Pursued by an Orwellian government agency headed up by Nana Mae Frost (Miranda Richardson), Boxer – aided by a fan who has taken on the role of one of the characters in his portentous script – is manipulated into indirectly assisting an underground neo-Marxist movement in blackmailing Baron von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn), who has tapped the oceans for an unlimited source of fuel. With war worsening overseas in Iraq and Serbia, injured pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake) tries to make amends with the man responsible for his scar, officer Ronald Taverner (Seann William Scott), who is in turn trying to unite with his enigmatic identical twin brother.

The story of Southland Tales‘ troubled production is infamous: lambasted following its début at Cannes, Richard Kelly’s follow-up to cult favourite Donnie Darko re-entered post production for a much needed emergency overhaul – in which the director hacked furiously at a movie rejected by critics as calamitous, self-indulgent and unsalvageable. Released theatrically eighteen months later in its heavily edited form, Kelly’s film failed to redeem itself in the eyes of most, instead stunting the short-lived career of one of Hollywood’s most audacious and prolific directors.

Southland Tales is the sort of movie that features two cars having sex, an unlimited fuel source that can also get you high, and which casts Justin Timberlake only to have him lip-sinc to The Killers’ All These Things That I’ve Done. It is a film of criss-crossing narratives, conflicting genres and one which has an opinion on just about everything. A post-apocalyptic satire with a dream sequence musical interlude, Kelly has constructed a sprawling narrative which encompasses everything from terrorism, to war, to teen horniness, a film which casts Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as a prophetic screenwriter and Sarah Michelle Gellar as…well I’m still not entirely sure; but, and this is a big but, I’ll tell you one thing: I bloody well love it anyway.

Opening with an explanatory voice-over from Timberlake, the film sets up an alternate reality in which the break-out of a third world war has turned LA into a war zone, exemplifying the existing conflicts so that the higher echelons can party aboard the city’s flagship Mega Zeppelin while the working class engage in street-warfare under the all-seeing eye of Nana Mae Frost’s U.S. IDent. Kelly’s dissatisfaction with modern California is etched into every frame of Southland Tales, as the film comments unreservedly on the likes of  reality television, celebrity culture, cyber-censorship and surveillance.

Despite both films centring on an impending apocalypse, Southland Tales couldn’t be more different to Kelly’s freshman film; whereas Donnie Darko centred its timey-wimey insanity in an emotional, tight-knit family setting, Southland Tale attempts to spread its story over a number of narratives, countless characters and the entire city of Los Angeles. From the cameos offered up by Kevin Smith and Eli Roth, to the caricature performances given by Johnson, Gellar and Timberlake, Southland Tales is a breathtaking, mind-boggling and far-reaching melting pot of occasionally brilliant but affectively vacant ideas. That the film’s sole emotional centre is provided by an uncharacteristically toned-down and heartfelt double-performance from professional idiot Seann William Scott is just the crack-pot cherry on a very big, messy, ambitious cake.

And it is ambitious. While the above synopsis might already smack of contrivance and intricacy, it barely touches on the many strands – the innumerable layers – of Kelly’s finished piece, let alone his original cut. Boasting an ensemble larger than many films’ entire cast listings, Southland Tales is not a movie that can be understood and decoded – much less enjoyed – on its first viewing. What might first appear labyrinthine (or, in case of the film’s dialogue, slapdash) later takes on a structure and intelligence which might well be studied in the years to come should the film ever shed its misconceptions. Even just Bai Ling’s Serpentine alone hints at a level of internal logic that nobody shy of Kelly himself is ever likely to unravel.

Dense verging on impenetrable, self-important verging on pretentious, and enigmatic verging on obtuse, Southland Tales is not an easy picture to like. That said, despite its flaws it is nevertheless a burgeoning cult classic that rewards patience, investment and many repeated viewings with a blindingly unique, inspiringly industrious and utterly visionary tale of faith, philosophy and Fluid Karma.

 

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About popcornaddiction
I am a psychology graduate, a News Writer for HeyUGuys/BestforFilm and, most importantly, a hopeless popcorn addict.

One Response to Southland Tales (2007)

  1. Nostra says:

    This was such a strange movie, but I remember liking it quite a bit just because of that 🙂

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