A Review of Southland Tales

Remember how, back in my Midnight Movies article, I predicted that Southland Tales would be looked upon in the same way in the future?  I had not seen the film at that point.  Well, now I have seen it. And I stand by my original assessment.  This is a film that only a jaded midnight crowd would ever get.  Do not ever expect to see me in that crowd.

It is not that I do not admire the film. One gets the sense that writer and director Richard Kelley (of Donnie Darko fame) had something he desperately wanted to say.  In this age, true satire on film is all but lost.  I can admire Kelley’s ambition and his determination to get his point across by any means necessary. But I do not have to like his film.  His message is lost in the shuffle of meandering filler and characters that are unnecessary and “jokes” that fail to be funny on any level.  The whole thing plays like the pages written by an angry kid in high school circa 2003 or so.  There are a few good insights, and one can see that the film is smart.  But it is also hopelessly lost in its own premise.

I had trouble writing a plot recap for Inception.  This makes that twisted narrative look formulaic.  Bear with me: it’s the year 2008 in an alternate universe. Three towns in Texas were the subject of a terrorist attack, causing an enormous shift to the right in Washington.  Now, interstate travel is regulated, the internet is monitored, and the Republican Party is looking to win the 2008 Presidential election by winning in California. But a group of neo Marxists (played mostly by alum of Saturday Night Live) are looking to stop them using a plot involving a senator’s son in law, Bobby Santaros (Dwayne Johnson) and a police officer Roland Taverner (Seann William Scott).  Santaros is having an affair with porn star Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar) which the opposition is trying to expose while making the police appear overtly aggressive by staging a homicide.  There is also a man, Baron Westphalia (Wallace Shawn) who has invented an alternate source of energy that has some unforeseen side effects.  There is also a plot device involving time travel, the apocalypse….alright, alright, I give up.  This whole premise is bananas. The film is narrated by Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake), but that doesn’t seem to help at all.

I am not going to fault Richard Kelley’s ambition.  His primary influence seems to be Philip K. Dick, and Kelley appears to be one of the few filmmakers who actually understands him. He was not a moody Kubrickian science fiction writer; he was a satirist who targeted the uptight conservatism of the 1950s.  Kelley does the same thing, and actually does manage to tap into the fear and paranoia that was part of the social consciousness present throughout the 2000s.  I am going out on a limb here, but I will say that I deeply enjoyed the first act, which mostly involves the scheme described above.  It starts out so well.

And then it loses it all.  Below you will see one of the more tolerable examples: on its own, it is quite funny at times (at others, particularly the line “Scientists are saying the future will be much more futuristic than they originally predicted,” it was groan inducing).

Surprisingly, this is the direction that Kelley wanted to take throughout the rest of the film.  The third act is almost completely inexcusable; filled with enough plot holes and bizarre narrative choices that it feels like a film written by a man who had never written a screenplay before and who was up all night desperately trying to finish it, no matter what he came up with. Please note, in order to properly examine the film, I have to give spoilers.  If you are still interested in seeing the film, skip to the last paragraph.

The whole twist involves a machine that managed to open up rifts in the space time continum. Boxer Santaros and Ronald Taverner both went through this rift; the presence of Ronald and his past self on the same plane means that their encounter will lead to the collapse of the fourth dimension and the end of the world.  First, everyone reacts to this news with absolute nonchalance. It is not that the information comes as a surprise to anyone – they openly discuss it and seem not to care or try and stop it.  Also, throughout the entire film, these two had been treating each other as brothers -you would think they of all people would realize their predicament, but no.  They, too, have no reaction to it.

I just don’t get it.  I know that Richard Kelley so desperately wants to be David Lynch and that adding discussions of physics seems to be his way of compensating the fact that he does not have the artistic background Lynch does.  In Donnie Darko, it at least worked to a certain degree – it didn’t make much sense, but was highly detailed and the characters at least believed in it. No one does here – the film starts out interesting but ends up a jumbled mess of pretentiousness, with only jaded pop culture freaks able to find any merit in it.

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