Southland Tales

Samuel Goldwyn Films
Richard Kelly/United States 2007

After sitting through Southland Tales, it comes as no surprise to learn that writer-director Richard Kelly, best known for the cult favorite Donnie Darko, spent much of the past six years immersed in its production. His movie is a chimerical potpourri of subverted images of American popular culture, thrust together in an often nonsensical but periodically fascinating fashion. The modus operandi appears to have been to ambitiously cram as much as possible into one movie, in the hope that some things might stick.

The picture takes place in a post apocalyptic Los Angeles, circa July 2008, that doesn’t look especially different from the city today, but it sure feels so. The prologue explains that the 2005 detonation of a nuclear bomb in Texas led to WWIII and a subsequently fractured United States, in which passports and checkpoints emerge at state boundaries. USIDent, an opaque, Orwellian government run corporation now controls national security. Members of the societal elite face off against neo-Marxist rebels led by Zora Charmichaels (Cheri Oteri).

Attempting to explain the hopelessly dense narrative seems fruitless, but here goes. Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson), an action movie star with amnesia, becomes involved in the struggle between the government and the rebels when he comes into contact with Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), a porn star and TV show host. Boxer has forgotten his marriage to Madeline Frost Santaros (Mandy Moore), the son of presidential candidate Bobby Frost (Holmes Osborne), and video evidence of his dalliance with Krysta could prove detrimental to his father-in-law’s campaign. Meanwhile, the rebels control police officer Roland Taverner (Seann William Scott), though it soon becomes apparent that he has an identical twin. Also, Baron Von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn), a German entrepreneur, prepares to introduce a bold new invention.

Confused? You’re not alone. There’s no discernible logic dictating the twists, turns and digressions taken by Kelly’s screenplay. It’s an amalgamation of character types, wildly staged individual scenes, intertextual citations and self-referential ideas. The filmmaker loads the film with iconic imagery, including a proliferation of American flags and wide shots of the familiar, crowded beaches of Santa Monica. Quotes from Marx line the walls of an ornate hall, Kelly repeatedly references the “Book of Revelations” and other literary allusions abound. He gets considerable satiric mileage out of his depiction of the anarchic, machine gun ravaged chaos of downtown L.A., precisely because it seems exactly like, well, downtown L.A.

As if that’s not enough, the movie heads into the metaphysical realm, exploring notions of multiple dimensions and time travel. Some of this stuff resonates, and as things get closer to what has to be considered the ultimate climax the more ethereal qualities stand out. However, the film mostly feels unhinged and out of control, a mess of muddled plotting without a clear guiding hand. Sequences unfold inexplicably and for much of the film the various subplots appear to have been edited together completely at random. Also, Kelly shortchanges his development of the precise dystopic setting. The movie badly needs some quieter moments, perhaps punctuated by a reflective visual, but they pretty much never come. So much has been shoved into the picture that it lacks breathing room, instead persistently haranguing the audience with new details and obfuscated plot developments.

The characters are thoroughly unlikable, though it’d be hard to blame the actors for that, as they were probably as perplexed by the screenplay as anyone. Johnson, mysteriously bereft of The Rock moniker, is too imposing a physical presence to convincingly seem the overwhelmed, nervous wreck his character is meant to be. As if attempting to compensate for that fact he repeatedly engages in an off-putting mannerism, timidly tapping his fingers together whenever circumstances seem dour. Scott fares better, if only because he keeps all manic Stiflerisms at bay. In a fashion allegorical to the movie itself the other cast members are given the occasional entertaining, even provocative moment but their characters end up appearing less than the sum of their parts.

Southland Tales provides a unique viewing experience and unlike the recent Slipstream, also a hallucinogenic jaunt through distinctly Lynchian territory, this one appears supported by real ideas. What those are, exactly, is anyone’s guess. This much is clear: Kelly has a lot to say about media in the 21st century, our image obsessed culture’s impact on politics and the corrupting of philosophy and literature for material gains. He’d have a much easier time saying it had he not produced a movie that feels more like the cinematic realization of a brainstorming session than a refined, finished product.

© 2007 Robert Levin. All rights reserved.

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