Southland Tales (9/10)

When Richard Kelly, at that time a no-name director who had released a couple of unimpressive and virtually unknown short films, hit theatres with Donnie Darko, it drew in unimpressive box-office numbers and quickly faded to DVD, where it stepped onto the fast-track to become a cult hit that eventually spawned a two-disc director’s cut DVD and a re-theatrical release. Suddenly Richard Kelly was somebody, and when his new film, Southland Tales, opened at Cannes to almost universally despising reviews, it seemed he might quickly fade back into the dark and remain a one-hit wonder. However, a year later, Southland Tales is on the big screen, and though the reviews were only slightly more favorable, this movie is one that will definitely cement Kelly’s position in Hollywood cinema. It’s an ambitious, hyperactive, startling dystopian mish mash of science fiction, political inquiry, satirical parody, metaphysical narratives, and a whole slew of other topics too, all fused into an often confusing whole that is both challenging and uncompromisingly visionary.

Dwayne Johnson plays Boxer Santaros, a political candidate for president in a post-apocalyptic U.S. that is in the middle of World War III in 2008. Yeah, 2008. The immediacy of this scenario is just one aspect of what makes Kelly’s vision of the future so darkly fascinating. He goes missing and turns up with a case of amnesia, hooking up with a porn star, Krysta Now, played by Sarah Michelle Gellar, who is part of a neo-Marxist conspiracy to sabotage a government-sponsored energy program called Fluid Karma. Sean William Scott steps in as a man posing as a cop to help in the plot to overthrow the incresingly surveillance-obsessed government, a none-too-thinly-veiled jab at the Bush administration. To give away any more of the plot points would be to rob you of the joy of discovering the layered intricacies of this weirdly twisted storyline.

One of the most impressive parts about Southland Tales is that most of its performers turn in the best roles of their careers. Dwayne Johnson, formerly known as “The Rock,” shows us he has an incredibly ability to do comedy, and do it surprisingly well. In several scene he hits every note perfectly and plays expertly off the veteran Seann William Scott, who also shows that he is more than just “the dude that got peed on in American Pie.” He has a real serious side that shows some true potential in this film. Johnson also shows he knows how to be serious without heightening the cheese factor too much, as he usually does in his other films. This is an actor to be contended with, and it’s a shame he’s off doing tame projects like “The Game Plan” and “Get Smart”The usual annoying Jon Lovitz shows up as dour, sour-faced psychopath with a twisted psyche and layered depths of personality. At first he may merely seem like a crazy person, but a cursory look into those frighteningly dark eyes tells us otherwise. Sarah Michelle Gellar, whom I usually find irrepressibly annoying, didn’t bother me once during this entire film, and that’s a huge accomplishment. She plays like a pro against everybody in the film and perfectly fits her persona with biting satire and the occasional touch of scathing wit. Justin Timberlake as a war veteran hits perfect self-aware parodic note and proves he’s not just some drive-by pop star who only knows how to sing and dance. This boy can act, too.

What will leave audiences most divided about the film, though, is the plot. When Donnie Darko hit theatres back in 2002, many critics hated it because of how incoherently confusing it was. The director’s cut, which extended it by 20 minutes, satisfied some grumblers, and Kelly’s potential as a filmmaker was solidified. What would he do next? Southland Tales goes the opposite direction – it has been cut down by twenty minutes and eliminated several subplots to form this mess that we see onscreen. And no matter how much you love Southland Tales, there’s no getting away from the fact that it is a mess, but this is precisely what is so beautiful about it, and why it is so impressive that in merely his second film, Kelly has gone all out, from a metaphorical tale about the difficulty of puberty as illustrated by time travel and a dark psychotic bunny, to a vast and interconnecting web full of meta-narratives and disconnective postmodernism. A conglomerate mashup of over six different stories that all weave and pour into some kind of grand finale whose metaphysical conceit is only topped by the fact that someone would actually try and do something like that, and manage to pull it off.

One of the astonishing things about Donnie Darko was that it managed to be a fairly believable tale while containing some things that were pretty freakin unbelievable. Southland Tales takes it not one, not two, not three, but at least a dozen step furthers as Kelly sets his satirical sights on politics, the adult film industry, the price of fame, the war in Iraq, alternative forms of energy, the corrupting nature of power, and the question of how it’s all connected. But here’s what makes Kelly different from the average filmmaker – he doesn’t give us the answers. Many critics have thrown their hands up in outrage at this film because they’ve tried to figure it out and failed, but as far as I can tell, all the pieces are there, and it is Kelly that is asking us to interconnect them. Some would even accuse the film of having no plot, but this is simply ludicrous; just because its plot stretches beyond the usual tripe heard in two hours and twenty minutes doesn’t preclude it from existing in the first place. Many critics who originally hated Donnie Darko retracted their rantings when it became a cult hit, and I would say Southland Tales is destined for this same kind of cult following.

Southland Tales is a post-modernist work in every sense of the word – a modern ode to the disconnectedness of our world that mashes up several different genres (satire, science fiction, political thriller) into a whole that is not seamless, but frayed around the edges, a mirror to our own sad and broken world. There are so many layers and commentaries woven throughout the film that, if watched passively, will indeed be both frustrating and incoherent. Nothing about this movie is easy – sure, it’s a joy to watch the Rock show some real acting chops and Sean William Scott not yell the f word every two seconds, but in terms of story, Southland Tales will challenge you like nothing you’ve ever seen this year. It’s a powerfully uncompromising and visionary tale, that, though unappreciated now, will get its comeuppance in the future, when all of our minds catch up with Richard Kelly’s. Sure, the story is broken, fragmented, confusing, incomplete in places, some of the commentary is a little heavy-handed, and as a whole, yes, it’s a mess. It’s a mess that does have a complete whole, and all Kelly’s asking us to do is put it back together, but in asking us, he also asks, can the mess really be picked up? It’s a bold and daring move, and obviously a lot of people hate him for it. But not me. Kelly is a rare visionary in today’s mass-market pulp-fiction post-Spielberg/Lucas/Camer

on world. And he won’t be silenced that easily. Southland Tales is a jarring, sense-shaking, twistedly written and boldly sharp and clever, uncompromising vision, made all the more daring and outstanding because there’s literally nothing like it in Hollywood today. Go see it.
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Southland Tales is not for everybody. If you work at it, this film will reward you, but be forewarned, it is not for the faint of heart. If you liked Donnie Darko, you very well may like this, but there’s also a chance you’ll hate it. Kelly’s gone full out here, and he’s not stopping for anybody. I do recommend it, but only if you’re in the mood for some serious thinking.

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2 Responses to “Southland Tales (9/10)”

  1. You hit it spot on body. Best movie i have ever seen. Beats Donnie only because it has taken more than two times to get it, and im still not sure. Cant wait for DVD release.

  2. I can’t wait for the DVD either. This is one of my favorite movies from last year, in my top ten. I’m excited to see where this will go in the future as well as to see what Kelly will come up with next.

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