Donnie Darko remains one of those interesting independent movie success stories. It’s script was plucked from a slush pile and deemed worthy of production, with creator Richard Kelly given a small 4.5 million to turn his words into film. Darko‘s distributor however had no idea how to market the final product and the film did terribly theatrically, until a series of award wins, combined with a growing cult following, turned Darko into a critical and commercial success. The film did well on DVD and stands as one of the more interesting movies of its era; very well acted, with a great soundtrack, and framed with beautiful directing and a dense, intriguing plot built on time travel. Some saw it as the voice of the generation, with teenagers in particular drawn to the movie. For a first film, Darko was fantastic, and critics waited for the followup, hoping for the Pulp Fiction to Darko‘s Dogs. Universal threw a ton of cash at Kelly for his second film – Southland Tales – a movie which was highly anticipated back in 2007 – that is until its disastrous release at Cannes. Critics absolutely hated the movie and it disappeared for a year or so for editing and was eventually granted a minimal theatrical run; most people forgot the film existed, and those who saw it hated it. It’s seen now as the movie which ended Richard Kelly’s career – the man has had one dreadful film since, The Box – and worth looking back at in review, to see how bad it actually is. What works and what doesn’t? Could Southland Tales undergo a reappraisal?The film’s plot is…complicated. In it’s most basic form: Southland Tales is set in an alternative 2008, in which Texas has been hit by a terrorist nuke leading to WW3, and the Republican party has tightened their grip on civil liberty. Set on Venice Beach, California, the film follows a group of characters, primarily actor with amnesia Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson), who has written an apocalyptic screenplay with porn/reality TV star Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), and then there’s Privates Roland/Ronald Taverner (Sean William Scott) twin brothers involved with the Neo-Marxist movement. There’s a lot of other plot going on here – a new form of energy pioneered by Wallace Shawn which may be slowing the Earth’s rotation, an ex-solider/drug-dealer/narrator played by Justin Timberlake who appears speaking cryptic Bible verses, a war between the Orwellian UsiDent and the Neo-Marxists, and of course pyschic powers, time travel, teleportation, political satire, and the apocalypse. If that sounds overly complicated and confusing, that’s because it is. The film’s first issue is the plot – we open with Episode IV, in what isn’t actually a reference to Star Wars. Southland Tales was conceived as a large, interactive project, and so the movie was preceded by three previous episodes in comic book form. Most of the audience didn’t read these comics. They serve as a background to the film and help fill in some of its vague plot-gaps – particularly those relating to Krysta Now’s unexplained psychic powers – but really, though the idea of a multi-media plot saga is interesting, it should go without saying that the film should be able to stand on its own merits. Needing a written backstory suggests some poor cinematic storytelling on Kelly’s part. Even ignoring the comics, the film is intensely complicated – with numerous characters (around 25 of them) with numerous plotlines, some of which intersect, most of which go nowhere. This is the film’s biggest problem – so many of its storylines fizzle out into nothing, and important points are dropped or seemingly, introduced randomly. The crux of the narrative seems to involve Boxer and Roland/Ronald and time travel, but there’s so much else here too, it can be difficult to understand what’s happening – which characters know what and who is working for who. Essentially, there are good elements within this plot and nice ideas, but the narrative is complicated endlessly for no reason and nothing seems to follow anything. The film lacks cause and effect in narrative, there’s a sense that things just happen aimlessly, though its clear Kelly does have a plan. There are themes and subjects he wants to discuss and its easy to get Southland Tales – it’s a political satire about the end of the world, updating the Book of Revelations to California during WW3 with Wallace Shawn playing the Anti-Christ and numerous other character allegories, Krysta Now is the Whore of Babylon etc, the ice-cream van the white horse. There are glimpses of all this. The political satire is pretty on-the-nose – the Republican party use terrorism and war to crush civil freedoms and this is wrong – there’s nothing new here, and nothing that hasn’t been said before. It’s not bad satire as such, it just isn’t as clever as it thinks it is. In a similar vein, Kelly floods the movie with soundbites of famous poets, mainly Eliot and Frost, but the quotes are used out of context and don’t seem to have been understood; there’s a sense of trying to appear smart with the quotes without actually having to be smart. The biggest issue with this is that Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men’ is deliberately misquoted so as to render its irony, and therefore its point, meaningless. The characters speak in random soundbites but ultimately don’t say anything that we’ve not heard before, and the characters act strangely too – things are revealed only to be ignored and forgotten about, whole scenes seem to get dropped, and there’s a meta-element towards the movie’s close as everyone seems to develop vague psychic powers – at least, they know the world is going to end, but don’t seem to react to this knowledge. The odd characters are played by an odd cast of mainly ‘Saturday Night Live’ players and some do much better than others. All that aside, there is a lot to like about Southland Tales. Southland Tales is a hugely ambitious movie and deserves praise for that, and there are elements of excellence within in it – the Revelations-allegory is interesting, when its there, and some of the satire works – the car-sex scene a nice play on the sexualisation of commercialism for example. There’s an amazing Steadicam scene on the Mega Zeppelin at the end, Justin Timberlake does a fun semi-musical scene to The Killer’s ‘All These Things That I’ve Done,’ and music on the whole is used fantastically throughout the movie. Kelly makes use of Muse, The Pixies, Moby and Beethoven – in a style similar to Tarantino, with the soundtrack fitting the action perfectly. Some of the cast are great; Gellar in particular, best known for her work on, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, proves herself to be a remarkably adept comic actress and steals a lot of scenes. Dwayne Johnson is smooth and likeable as the lead, but has a bizarre ‘tell’ to show he’s scared which comes across as cringeworthy. Mandy Moore is good in her role and Wallace Shawn seems to having a lot of fun, with his team of odd-ball followers (including Beth Grant and Zelda Rubinstein) being one of the movie’s highlights.And Kelly, for his narrative issues, is a remarkably good filmmaker, which makes Southland Tales an interesting paradox – it’s a very well directed bad movie. In terms of how the film is put together on a technical level, this is quality stuff – its the narrative and plot which lets everything down. Kelly is a director heavily inspired by Kubrick and Lynch and you get the sense that he wants to make dreamlike, hazy movies where the narrative is allowed to flow and takes a backseat to atmosphere and style. Southland Tales was meant to be something like Mulholland Drive, and occasionally comes very close. The film actually works if broken down into scenes and moments and judged merely on pacing and style. The film does become progressively darker with each ‘Episode’ and if you let yourself roll with it, taking the movie as something of a more surrealistic experiment, it begins to make a lot more sense. This explains the strange meta-characters and their lack of human response. Characters shouldn’t be judged as people but as archetypes or vehicles for plot, and the plot itself should be followed in tone but not detail. The movie appeals to a certain style of filmmaking – David Lynch primarily – and revels in the art of movie construction. Southland Tales is a very difficult movie to judge but ultimately, despite its faults, there’s enough good here to make it worth watching, and enough pure insanity – in terms of narrative construction and characters, intentional, flawed or whatever – to make for very interesting viewing. It’s essentially a bad movie, but a very well made one. It’s certainly very ambitious, and an ambitious failure deserves more credit than a cautious success. More movies should be this bold. There’s a cult classic buried in here somewhere and it wouldn’t be surprising if people are more fond of this movie years down the line. Southland Tales isn’t as awful as people make out – sure, the plot is a mess and senseless, and its’ rather pretentious with poor satire, yet its very well directed, at times quite funny, and at least attempted to be something a little bit different. It’s a flawed mess of a movie but strangely likeable. It’s easy to see where Kelly was going with it, and to see why the critics hated it, but it certainly shouldn’t have doomed Kelly’s career like it did. A bit of editing and few tweaks to the script and this could have been something amazing. It’s nowhere near as smart and well-put together as Donnie Darko, but its certainly worth a watch – Southland Tales is a paradox of a movie, and one really, people need to make their own minds up about.
For those interested, Vice did an interview with Richard Kelly on Southland Tales – makes for a fascinating read and provides a far bit of insight into the movie.