How can one accurately “review” Richard Kelly’s mind-bendingly asinine new film SOUTHLAND TALES? Kelly, who’s first film was the cult classic (and quite enjoyable) DONNIE DARKO, has stumbled with his second directorial effort, but he gets points for trying. A sprawling, semi-coherent, Los Angeles-based, head-trip of a film, SOUTHLAND TALES feels like one of the most expensive experimental films ever made. It’s a maddening sit, and at two-and-a-half-hours, it feels its length, especially during the film’s rambling mid-section. However, it’s impossible to completely dismiss this film as some critics have; while flawed, it’s a surreal, distinct vision that could only have come from a filmmaker with some serious talent. It’s an over-indulgent mess of a story 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 all up into a wacky smoothie of a movie, one that is only partially digestible.
It’s an impossible movie to dissect, but let me try. The film 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 4, 2008, but the world we knew is gone. Society stands on the brink of social, economic and environmental disaster. A fascist government is in control; big brother is lurking everywhere. Boxer Santaros (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) is an action star who's stricken with amnesia. He crosses paths with a conniving porn star named Krysta Now (a sadly fully clothed Sara 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. Meanwhile, good-guy cop Ronald Taverner (an excellent Sean William Scott), agrees to allow Santaros to shadow him so he can get the feel for police life. 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 home base; 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 summarize all of it.
Making all of these disparate threads add up to a cohesive whole is just one problem that Kelly encounters. Clearly, he’s bitten off well more than he can chew, but I have to hand it to him—while flawed in many respects, his film is never boring and is fascinating on many levels. One of the key problems with SOUTHLAND TALES is that Kelly is satirizing a world that doesn’t exist; its one thing to reference the work of Stanley Kubrick and other surrealist filmmakers, but Kelly doesn’t have a grip of his material. Sure, he’s created a frightening political and social landscape, one that in fact may not be too far away for all of us in reality. But by not basing his vision in any sort of realistic setting, the audience isn’t in on the joke like Kelly; he’s poking fun at a world that is so far removed from our own that his satire holds no weight. It might all make sense to him, but it doesn’t add up for the audience. The performances are broad, and in many respects, way over-played. “The Rock” has been effective in a few action flicks (check out Peter Berg’s underrated THE RUNDOWN) but here, he never fits into Kelly’s idiosyncratic groove. Geller, while still sexy, is over-eager in her role, and by the end, a bit of an annoyance. However, Sean William Scott, still best known for his immortal role of Stifler in the AMERICAN PIE franchise, is terrific; 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 silly movie is effective and almost too good for the film in general.
This is the sort of film that feels like it’s been made by a bunch of stoners with tons of ideas and no sure way of expressing themselves. SOUTHLAND TALES lurches towards its fiery climax, and it’s only then that the movie takes off; the last 30 minutes are actually pretty awesome in a deranged, Terry Gilliam, chuck-it-all abandon that makes for some delirious fun. But if you asked me what the point of the film was, I wouldn’t know. And if you asked me what happened to every character (and more importantly why) I wouldn’t be able to answer. Kelly worked on this film extensively after he was booed at the Cannes Film Festival after he screened an almost three hour cut of the film. He snipped about 30 minutes from the run time, got rid of entire characters, added some special effects, but was still unable to create a tangible sense of purpose with SOUTHLAND TALES. Again, 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, he deserves points for making a film as out there as this one. Too bad he couldn’t bring it all together to form something truly special, as SOUTHLAND TALES threatens to become. As is, SOUTHLAND TALES is an ambitious failure, one that I had some fun watching, have had more fun thinking about in the days after watching it, and should serve as a precedent for Kelly—next time, relax, and tell one story, not twelve.