Is it true that we learn more from mistakes than from successes? I don’t know. What I do know is that Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales is a folly — the cinematic equivalent of a big mistake — but it’s a great folly, one that might redefine what we mean by failure at the movies.
If Kelly’s Donnie Darko was his London Calling, Southland Tales has to be his Sandinista! — a vast, sloppy, overarching experiment — only without Sandinista!‘s critical acclaim. Many reviewers, and I can’t really blame them, greeted Southland Tales with uncomprehending hostility and scorn. Here, after all, was not only an epic — it was only the second half of an epic, preceded by a trilogy of graphic novels collected as Southland Tales: The Prequel Saga. What you get in the film is the final three chapters, truncated by some twenty minutes from the version that was screened, ignominiously, at Cannes. What’s left is a semi-coherent poetic riff on the Bush administration, vaultingly ambitious and allusive (not to mention elusive), in which political satire consorts haphazardly with scatological humor (there’s a running thing about people who can’t piss or shit no matter how much they ingest).
Southland Tales overdoses on the minutiae of the world Kelly creates; he focuses on the backstory and the technological rules of this new, post-nuke universe (we’re told Abilene and El Paso took the hot one on July 5, 2005) to the exclusion of getting inside his characters, who mostly spout jargon or gibberish — much like George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels, come to think of it. To that end, Southland Tales is a critique, intentional or not, of the incomprehensible mammoths we get every summer. Try to imagine going into The Phantom Menace without any prior awareness of the original Star Wars trilogy — that’s Southland Tales.
In recent years, when an idiosyncratic young director makes a modest little film that goes on to find a cult on video, that director’s sophomore effort tends to be twice as dense and lengthy as the debut; the director may think, “Well, I may never get this chance again — I’d better shoot for the moon, pack as much as I can into one movie.” Quentin Tarantino led with the minimalist Reservoir Dogs, then made the triptych Pulp Fiction; Paul Thomas Anderson’s first film was the tiny, effective three-character study Hard Eight, which he chased with the vast ensemble piece Boogie Nights.
Kelly’s follow-up to Donnie Darko compiles everything he wants to say about the deranging looking-glass of the Bush years. It is, on one level, a reductio ad absurdum of America’s overreaction to 9/11, handing unprecedented power to the president ostensibly to keep us safe but really to give up more freedom and privacy. As with most dystopian visions, the events in Southland Tales are, shall we say, exaggerated. We’re in World War 3 now, fighting five countries, though still not sure who actually set off the bombs. The oil is almost gone, so we have turned to a new fuel called Fluid Karma, which can also be used as a drug (shades of Dune and its multi-purpose spice) that allows people, once sufficiently addicted, to move backwards and forwards in time. The Democrats are no longer liberal enough, so a splinter group called the Neo-Marxists plot and kidnap and shout slogans. The characters are all pieces on a vast eschatological chessboard, pursuing their own agendas; many of the characters are doubles, or echoed in a screenplay written by a porn star, which may or may not be an actual prophecy.
Kelly starts with a political satire and then complicates it madly; the subplots cheerfully metastasize and comment on each other. Southland Tales does not lend itself to synopsis or even to discussion of its characters or the cast — the whole thing is a joke, an ungainly meta-narrative that seeks to immerse us in the insanity and illogic of our own reality just slightly removed. To get the most out of it, I would suggest simply rolling with it, grooving on the sheer fecund clottage of it, and not straining to parse the huge thing scene by scene. Southland Tales has been described as wild and nonsensical so many times that one might expect a rabid, hyperactive wildebeest of a movie, but most of it is actually rather becalmed and emo — slow, some would say. Kelly has mastered a particular mood of melancholy chaos, a sense of many lives blighted by forces they can’t hope to control. This mood was, of course, dominant throughout Donnie Darko, though it was easier to take because it was all filtered through Donnie. Southland Tales is essentially Donnie Darko without Donnie, without a central figure to pin one’s identification on.
Boxer Santoros (Dwayne Johnson), the amnesiac former football star turned action-movie star, probably comes closest to that central figure; other times, though, the focus shifts to the twin brothers Roland and Ronald Taverner (Seann William Scott), the former a kidnapped Los Angeles cop, the latter used as his stand-in for a Neo-Marxist scheme. Are they really twin brothers, though? Who can say? There’s a reason the third result you get when you Google Southland Tales is “Southland Tales explanation.” The aforementioned porn star, Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), is in cahoots with one side or another, and she seems to be controlling Boxer’s life and his very identity. The narrative suggests Pynchon, Dick, and Vonnegut thrown into a blender, with a sprinkling of Saturday Night Live veterans, plus Justin Timberlake, in the generally acknowledged stand-out performance, as a scarred Iraq War veteran who narrates the film, injects his share and everyone else’s of Fluid Karma, and broods atop a gun turret. In a drug-induced fantasy that makes about as much sense as anything else in the film, Timberlake lip-synchs the Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done” while nurses dance around him.
The brilliance of Southland Tales is inextricable from its flaws, if indeed they are flaws. One could say it’s overlong and overstuffed and confusing, but if the film is intentionally those things — if Kelly has delivered the movie he wanted to make — who’s to say it’s a failure? All the things its detractors slammed it for not being — I’m not sure it was ever supposed to be those things. A folly like this demands to be viewed on its own one-off terms, demands to be assessed for what it is, not what it isn’t. And what it is, to me, is the first half of the first decade of the 21st century stirred up into a giant stew of speculative dread and loathing, wedded to techno-mystico jazz riffs of the sort that, it’s clear by now, Kelly can’t help returning to again and again. Really, if you want to understand Southland Tales, the graphic novels you should read aren’t The Prequel Saga but Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg; this movie is like a dour, sexless (for all the porno talk, hardly anyone gets it on except for two cars in a commercial) extrapolation of Chaykin’s vision of future America as a neon-sickened city that never blinks.
Maybe Southland Tales needed a wisecracking Reuben Flagg. Or maybe not. Maybe all it needs is time to build a cult of appreciative viewers. Like a lot of dystopian fiction, Southland Tales is really more about when it was made than about any putative future. It stands now, of course, as a demented alternate history, but it’s also a creative nervous breakdown in response to 9/11 and subsequent events. As such, it does not need to make sense; it does not need to have “relatable” characters or even an ending; it does not need to “entertain.” It’s Apocalypse Now for the Twitter generation, and either you go with it or you don’t.