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Film Review: Southland Tales

Southland Tales (2006; Directed by Richard Kelly)

Richard Kelly’s geek-anticipated follow-up to his slow-burning cult hit Donnie Darko is… well… what the heck is it? Nothing can really be decoded about the film from plot exposition or the motivations of the characters, since neither really exist. And yet Kelly’s script is entirely too obtuse and awkward, his approach to both direction and casting too B-movie to qualify as a true art film.

The Rock, immediately after the premiere of "The Tooth Fairy".

The only way to approach this over-symbolic garbage dump of a movie is as a tone poem on the slippery zeitgeist, an opiated metaphor for the precarious order of pre-apocalyptic America. Iraq, the Patriot Act, culture war, homeland security, anti-intellectualism, corporate megalomania, celebritainment, and environmental degradation are all glued stickily together with a dizzying collage of literary references, sci-fi demagoguery, and goofball deadpan faux-losophy. It doesn’t make even half a lick of sense, but it’s not really supposed to, because it’s postmodernism, you stupid bitch. It’s sort of like Guernica, with Mandy Moore and Jon Lovitz.

Really, Southland Tales is most useful as a litany of memorable images, sequences, lines, and performances. Sarah Michelle Gellar cooing “Teen horniness is not a crime” in a pop video. Jackbooted SWAT teams blowing away helpless liberal artists for no particular reason. One Hummer mounting and penetrating another in a car ad. One horrible, half-humourous character name after another. Wallace Shawn as a zeppelin-building power magnate with an awful hairpiece. Seann William Scott’s laconic, haunted turn as a guilt-ridden veteran, a head-scratchingly fine performance worthy of a much better movie. The Rock’s hilarious Mr. Burns-like finger-drumming whenever things get heavy.

Mind you, shockingly most memorable (although less so in hindsight, considering his recent migration into full-on actordom) is Justin Timberlake as a movie-star-turned-disfigured-Iraq-veteran, quoting the Book of Revelations as he gazes panoptically from a gun emplacement on top of the Santa Monica pier. He stars in the film’s key sequence, a stumbling lip-sync to the Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done”, the only time that Kelly’s obtuse social commentary crystallizes into anything sharp or coherent. Here’s the biggest pop star in America (at least at the time), goateed and scarred, wearing a shirt that looks conspicuously bloodstained, pouring a beer over his head as he mouths along to a bombastic anthem of pre-packaged, microwaved regret as perky, leggy blonde nurses go all-out Bubsy Berkeley behind him. It’s a penetrating image of social decay in a film that needs a few more such images.

Despite these scattered elements spread across the screen like so much buckshot against a brick wall, you can ultimately add Kelly’s Southland Tales to the vainglorious annals of “ambitious messes” in the cinema.

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Categories: Film, Reviews
  1. August 16, 2011 at 3:06 am

    Richard Kelly’s career went China Syndrome with this one, and became a nuclear wasteland with his terrible “The Box” … I think I love Donnie Darko only out of sheer nostalgia, because if I’d seen it AFTER watching these other films he’s wasted my time with, there’s no way I’d even give Darko half a chance. Thank God he made that one first … πŸ˜‰

  2. August 19, 2011 at 10:37 am

    I suspected that Kelly was a pretty crappy filmmaker long before seeing this. Donnie Darko’s – Director’s Cut release, for me, actually proved that the producers of the film knew its strengths far more than the supposed ‘auteur’ at the helm. Southland Tales just confirmed things and if there were any loyal diehards holding off on the flogging, then surely The Box did for them. Great review.

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