How can one accurately “review” Richard Kelly’s mind-bendingly crazy and divisive film Southland Tales? Kelly, whose debut was the incredibly enjoyable cult classic Donnie Darko, totally shot for the moon and back with his second directorial effort, which is filled with an insane amount of ambition and spontaneous sense of creativity. A sprawling, 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 last few years, I’ve grown to absolutely love the movie, and I constantly feel compelled to revisit it. The film’s extra-packed midsection, at first, seemed purposefully meandering, but I’ve realized that it’s just extra dense, and requires some careful dissection. While some may feel that Kelly possibly bit off more than he could chew overall, it’s impossible to dismiss this film the way a majority of critics did, if for no other reason than it takes serious chances as a piece of storytelling, and because it’s a surreal, distinct vision that could only have come from a filmmaker with immense talent and a high level of chutzpah.
The film starts off in 2005, at a backyard, Fourth of July barbeque 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, 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) is an action-movie star who’s stricken with amnesia. He crosses paths with a calculating porn star named Krysta Now (a sassy 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 police officer Ronald Taverner (an excellent Sean William Scott), 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 summarize all of it. It’s a massive piece of filmmaking, going off on tangents and filling the frame with tons of visual detail (Kelly’s regular collaborator, the versatile 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 wild smoothie of a movie.
Making all of these seemingly 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 homages to classic films, while still operating as a unique vision all its own. While narratively stuffed at times, and 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 Southland Tales is satirizing a world that doesn’t totally exist. Kelly 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 fully 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 a bit esoteric. But that’s because Kelly truly KNOWS this world that he’s created. 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, give 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.
As Southland Tales moves 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 the Cannes Film Festival, which in retrospect, as he mentioned in interviews, was likely the A-1 worst place for this 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 at times perplexing films I’ve ever come across, one that has aged extremely well over time as our social landscape continually changes.