We’ve still under the weather and are also having terrible trouble writing about "Southland Tales," but don’t want to let it go without mention. So this isn’t going to be very coherent, which many would no doubt deem appropriate.
There seems to be some alchemical disconnect between the movies Richard Kelly has in his head and what actually ends up on screen. We like "Donnie Darko" plenty, but can’t believe that anyone can glean the interpretations Kelly has offered in interviews and on DVD extras from what’s in the film alone. There’s not enough of it there on screen… and anyway, why would you want to? Those supplemental explanations just drag down something that’s better left happily oblique. If Kelly had managed to make clear everything he intended in the film, it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as good.
Now, if Mr. Kelly were to stand next to the screen at every showing of "Southland Tales" and offer verbal footnotes, perhaps with backing of the three graphic novels that precede the film and allow it to kick off, "Star Wars" style, on book four, the whole thing would surely unravel, if not elegantly, at least in a way that made some sense. As it stands, though, "Southland Tales" is overstuffed, underexplicated, hubristically ambitious, uneven, bewildering and kind of awesome. We can’t imagine it’s going to please most anyone, and we have to admit our personal susceptibility to the fabulous disaster, but "Southland Tales" has wormed its way in our brain like few other films this year and is, without a doubt, one of our favorites.
The basics are: It’s 2008, Texas has been bombed by terrorists, neocons run rampant in
the upper echelons of the government, the U.S. is buckled down under a
‘roided-up Patriot Act and at war with Iran, Iraq, North Korea and
Syria, the draft has been reinstated, oil is out of the question and Southern California is being
powered by an experimental, laws-of-thermodynamics-defying invention
called Fluid Karma, housed in a massive structure looming off the Santa
Monica shore. This entire scenario is dropped on us in first ten minutes with the help of a animated overview, and from there the story lets forth a dozen tentacles following scattered characters: a famous actor with links to the Republican party and an inconvenient case of amnesia (Dwayne Johnson); a porn star with talk show and franchise ambitions who’s written a screenplay that foretells the coming apocalypse (Sarah Michelle Gellar); a Venice Beach-based radical activist group called the neo-Marxists; a scarred former actor turned soldier turned narrator, drug addict and sniper (Justin Timberlake); and a cop with, possibly, a twin and also, possibly, amnesia (Seann William Scott).
How to explicate "Southland Tales"’ unearthly pull? It comes in part because the casting is all in air quotes â€” The Rock, Buffy, Stifler, various SNL escapees, Mandy Moore, an almost unrecognizable Kevin Smith and the current king of the pop charts â€” but the acting is often as earnest as the over-the-top scenarios will allow, particularly Johnson and Timberlake, who manages to make a sequence in which he imagines himself as the star of a music video set in an arcade, lip syncing to the Killers’ "All These Things That I’ve Done," bafflingly resonant. It’s also because the film seems like a hallucination born from years of apocalyptic Los Angeles imagery, the meeting point of "Kiss Me Deadly" and "Blade Runner" (both of which receive nods) and dozens of other tales on celluloid and in print that would have the city constantly on the verge of catastrophe and still soldiering on, cheerfully oblivious to the fact. And its in part because it fearlessly mixes T.S. Eliot references with the cheapest of dumb blond jokes, and because under a front of irony the film has its big sloppy heart out on its sleeve.
So "Southland Tales" is about L.A., it’s about the end of the world, it’s overtly a comedy but also helplessly mournful, it’s a genre mash-up particularly fixated on the ever-rewarding oeuvre of Arnold Schwarzenegger, and it’s, less successfully, a heavy-handed but fervent political satire. It’s also 19 minutes shorter than the version that was so poorly received at Cannes, and you can see the edges of a snipped storyline apparently involving Janeane Garofalo, who appears fleetingly toward the film’s climax. We’d like to see that first cut, but we’d also just like to see the film again. (We’re in the stalwart minority there â€” though our colleague Matt Singer did allow that he’d see it a second time… in a year.) Certainly it’s valiantly, foolhardily its own film, and it’s sure as hell like nothing else you’ll find in theaters, and that, we’d hope, would be recommendation enough.