Dir. - Richard Kelly
Viewed: From the Balcony
It's been 5 long years since Donnie Darko -- and aside from a Tony Scott-ed script for Domino it's been a quiet 5 years for Richard Kelly. It reminds me a little bit of the time between Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction -- other people started buying up Quentin Tarantino scripts and like Natural Born Killers is to Oliver Stone, I don't think you can call Domino a Richard Kelly movie. Anyway, Southland Tales, Kelly's second feature-length movie, is nothing like Pulp Fiction. Actually Southland Tales is nothing like anything. I honestly am going to be struggling trying to write about this one (I just watched it a couple days ago -- I've tried to let it sink in but I think any honest evaluation of this movie is going to take multiple viewings -- for better or worse) as there are no easy comparisons and yet the movie deserves more conversation than it's likely to get.
The movie starts off with an effective home movie type sequence in Abaline, Texas where we watch a neighborhood run into the streets to witness a nuclear bomb go off nearby. Justin Timberlake's narration walks us through one of many computer animated sequences that feed us data and try to catch us up to speed on the state of the union following the attack. Basically, the country is spending lots of money trying to come up with alternative energy sources and there's a whole lot of politicking going on as we're in campaign season leading up to the '08 election. The narration is heavy with doomsday tones and Revelations quotes. There isn't much doubt that what we're watching is how the end of the world occurs -- "...not with a whimper, but with a bang." (Up for election is the Eliot/Frost ticket.) After the intro we're dropped right into the thick of it. (*deep breath*) An amnesiac action star with political ties is trying to unravel a conspiracy that involves militant political activists, a porn star that can see the future, two Seann William Scott's, a big brother type operation with more than a few dwarfs helping to pull the strings of the media and the government... and wouldn't you know it, it all has a lot to do with the colliding of parallel universes. A word to the wise, you may want to leave the booze and dope alone before entering this world.
The major criticisms of the film are inevitably going to come from the over-ambitious nature of the film. It tackles politics, corporations, media, the war in Iraq, celebrity obsession, all while putting together one of the more insane conspiracy plots ever put to film. In some ways it did remind me of Alan Rudolph's Breakfast of Champions -- a movie I think more people dislike due to the handling of its source material than for it's merits as a bat-shit crazy, shoot for the moon, fun movie. While Southland Tales doesn't have a mesmerizing eye of the hurricane like an unhinged Nick Nolte to latch onto, it's never boring, has endless energy and if you can give yourself over to it's anarchic spirit you'll be entertained and impressed by Kelly's ballsy experimentation.
A good amount of this fun comes from Kelly's casting choices. Every actor in this film comes with a certain amount of iconic baggage. You have The Rock playing the amnesiac action star; Sarah Michelle Gellar as the prophetic porn star/screenwriter; Miranda Richardson, John Larroquette and Wallace Shawn as the shady conspirators; Justin Timberlake is our narrator and wounded veteran; Nora Dunn, Cheri Oteri, Jon Lovitz and Amy Poehler all play a part in the "Neo-Marxists" angle, who have a hand in precipitating the apocalypse (similar to that 12 Monkeys group); and Highlander Christopher Lambert himself sells heavy artillery from his ice cream truck. Any of these casting scenarios might uncomfortably stick out in your average movie -- but it's all strangely symbiotic here.
You reach a point early on where you feel like anything can happen at any moment in this movie -- so it's not really strange at all when a dyed-blond Jon Lovitz shows up playing a homicidal cop -- convincingly, I might add. Brilliant, you think, what will come next to top that? Many, many things. Two SUVs going at it doggy-style is the first thing that comes to mind (and I'll have you know a muffler turning into a vagina is not something that leaves the brain easily)... a flashback to military barracks in Iraq turns out to be a Dennis Potter type song and dance number... and those may mot even be the strangest bits in this film.
Southland Tales is certainly not for everyone. Even if you enjoyed Donnie Darko, this might simply be too inaccessible. There's certainly some common threads to be found -- the science fiction elements are handled very similarly and the ending of Southland definitely resonated with me in a way that echoed Darko. Both films are rather dark at their core -- people hurtling uncontrollably towards their destiny. In this case it's the end of world -- or at least the end of Western Civilization, as Kelly puts it. If you look at it with that perspective, that you're simply watching this array of characters and situations as they rush to fulfill their destinies to meet this end, it frees you up to simply enjoy the filmmaking that's at hand here. And there's plenty to be impressed with. Scenes so elaborate and on such a grand scale that a relatively young filmmaker like Kelly shouldn't be able to pull them off. Elaborate and grand pretty much describes the plot as well, and while that isn't quite nailed on the head, the ambition is easy to appreciate. I saw the film with Special Fellow at the Harvard Film Archive (it made up for being shut out of that Funny Games advanced screening) and upon leaving he summed it up with something like, "I don't know what the hell just happened, but it was fucking awesome." He later called it the next Brazil.
This movie is going to divide audiences pretty much down the middle -- I don't think it's going to succeed in theaters but I believe it will have a long and prosperous life on home video; much like Brazil, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Donnie Darko, it's something that will reward repeat viewings by allowing the details to be savored (that NY Times link above offers you a glimpse into the amount of literary and film references that are scattered throughout). I'll definitely be catching it again when it gets its proper release and the first thing I thought about when I left the theater was I need to pick up the rest of those comic books that Kelly released before the movie. I'd read the first one almost a year ago and that didn't help too much going into the movie but I'm more than interested in expanding this world.