I'm not sure Richard Kelly quite knew what he had created in the indie masterpiece that was Donnie Darko (2001). His first film seemed to be perfectly balanced between quirky 1980's nostalgia and apocalyptic surrealism and shed light on the talented Gyllenhaal siblings. Whatever was to follow Darko in Kelly's career had much to live up to, so the spotlight was well and truly on Southland Tales from its troubled production onwards.
The problem with having a surprise classic as a first film is the ridiculous expectations harboured by the picture's critics and fans its follow up. I must admit after following the film press on the production of Southland Tales it looked doubtful that I was going to love it as much as I truly wanted to. I must also confess that I really wanted to like the film everybody else seemed to hate just to be different, although I thought it was doubtful with the evidence I had to work with. So after watching the film and being pretty well excited and confused in equal measure, I was elated to be able to disagree with everyone else's reviews!
If you are the kind of person who likes a film to be technically perfect and narrative to be resoundingly opaque and resolution-intact, then forget about this film straight away. However, if you are excited by filmmakers going out on a limb to create something challenging, something attempting the crime of this century – gasp – originality, then keep an open mind and let Kelly's Tales wash over you.
Southland Tales is a film that does not lend itself easily to a brief synopsis, but I will attempt to give the gist. In a eerily recognizable parallel 2008, at the time of the general election and after terrorism in the U.S. goes nuclear with World War 3 declared, an ex-film star with amnesia, Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson) and girlfriend Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar) have written a screenplay about the last days before apocalypse. Boxer's murky past, as well as his fate, are entwined with Seann William Scott's character, Roland Taverner, as they both struggle to make sense of the situation unfolding around them, one that has more to do with Santaros' screenplay than they knew.
Southland Tales is by no means a perfect movie. It does not achieve the balance and total all-encompassing atmosphere of his previous venture. But what it does is take all the more 'out there' ideas of Donnie Darko (and then some) and weaves a unique cinematic experience out of these components. What many critics cannot seem to do is look at this film as an arthouse picture, which is really the realm in which good sci-fi should reside; for all the stars and budget of Blade Runner, it has an overridingly un-Hollywood sensibility in it's intelligence. I think the furthest you can push decent science fiction into a Hollywood mould is with the Matrix trilogy, and that still sacrifices some intelligence for style. Kelly refuses to do this. For every overblown special effect there is a question surrounding the inner and outer landscapes of the mass media society in a confused and violent age. This is a film that thematically has more in common with the ambitions of Sergei Eisenstein and Fritz Lang than the Wachowski brothers. It is a film that fuses what we know to be true with what we fear, and what we fear is so often what we do not understand. If critics run from the aisles of Southland Tales because 'it doesn't make sense' or because of its fragmented and information-crammed format, then I pity their stuffy closed-mindedness. Besides, Southland Tales offers more clarification of its intentions than the acclaimed headfuck of Lynch's Inland Empire, yet due to its glossy packaging and lack of uniformity has been slated unfairly.
In actuality Kelly's second film aims for such a dizzy height of concept that the reality could never contain it all without showing the strain. His influences range from film noir and cyberpunk to Kubrick's Dr Strangelove to the ideas of Philip K. Dick and J. G. Ballard, duel identities and quantum physics. Because there is such a melting pot of ideas within Southland Tales it can seem overloaded and convoluted, but what one should remember is it is essentially an experimental movie, in the guise of something more mainstream. That is the irony of the whole piece. Kelly casts well known pop culture icons to lead the insane march to apocalypse; Sarah Michelle Gellar was Buffy, Seann William Scott was first seen in the teen gross out comedy American Pie, and most bravely Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson is cast, an ex-WWE wrestler. Justin Timberlake's persona is cleverly deconstructed – a pop star known for his looks in real life is an ex-soldier in the movie, physically and mentally wounded by his experiences in Iraq. All these personas outside of the film are what makes their presence within it so canny, and in a way scary, seeing a reflection of America's true media figures in this imagined parallel reality, and all actors rise to the challenge. In fact I found Johnson's performance extremely accomplished given the rubbish he has participated in before this film, and all supporting roles are diligent – even Timberlake is good in both voiceover and physical presence, his musical scene using The Killers 'All These Things That I've Done' is arguably the film's highlight.
Music was key to the atmosphere of Donnie Darko, and is no less so here. Moby does a fine job with pulses and soundscapes filtering in and out of scenes, adding to their dreamlike surrealism. There are choice tracks by other artists, the likes of Radiohead and The Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, lending a fresh perspective on the songs themselves when viewed in conjunction with Southland Tales' mise-en-scene while underlining the emphasis on pop culture. The look of the film, when not showing a computer screen navigational system juxtaposed with Timberlake's almost haunting voiceover, rests on the incredibly varied and striking sets; the Neo-Marxist's base is a pop art, Dadaist mess of blow-up dolls, garish sculptures and fluorescent lighting, with as much graffiti on the walls as political posters, whereas the interior of the US Ident company is all clinical whites and cold blues. Exteriors are LA's sunny beach tourist traps and plush foliage. Everything is vivid and alive, a contrast to all the talk of imminent destruction. All this combines on occasion to add a sensory overload to the narrative confusion.
Okay so it could be argued Richard Kelly has written and directed with a little over-exuberance on this production. He may have pushed some to breaking point with his combination of ideas and visuals, and irritated them with a long running time. Maybe it was just too much for some to see The Rock acting well, or the absence of a cut and dried resolution.* But I think what he has created is a flawed but substantial work of science fiction, and one I hope will eventually grow in popularity in years to come. Who knows what Kelly will produce next, but it will be hard pushed to be as memorable a piece of work as Southland Tales, no matter how good or bad it will turn out to be.
An even moderately budgeted modern American movie is expected to look no less than pristine on DVD and Southland Tales is no exception. This is a pin-sharp anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer with excellent contrast and colour, doubtless mastered from a high defiunition source.
The 5.1 soundtrack matches the picture for quality, a crystal clear mix with some very precise separation and good bass on music and especially on the early-film nuclear explosion.
Unfortunately, after Darko's well stocked DVD set, the Southland Tales release is lacking. It has one extra feature, and one only: a Surveilling The Southland 33 minute documentary. It offers cast and crew interviews and interviews with the annoyingly youthful Richard Kelly himself, giving insight into the production and thematics of the film. Unsurprisingly, nothing groundbreaking is really revealed in regards to the convoluted narrative, and there are a couple of scenes dedicated to actors trying, with little success, to describe the movie. Not by any means an unworthy feature, this making-of is okay but does not make up for the lack of any other extras. On the strength of the one on Donnie Darko, a commentary by Kelly would have been great. Maybe if the film stops getting such bad press someone might give this film the DVD coverage it deserves!
* If you want to see a sci-fi film with no originality, an acceptable running time, and a forgettable ending then you may enjoy Doomsday!