Release Date: Nov. 14
Director/Writer: Richard Kelly
Cinematographer: Steven B. Poster
Starring: Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Sean William Scott, Sarah Michelle Gellar
Studio/Run Time: Samuel Goldwyn Films, 144 mins.
Six years ago, Donnie Darko premiered to a massive audience of no one. While a few critics championed the film, just as many seemed unaware of its existence. Three years later, and the film is a cult classic, considered one of the strongest debut efforts in memory. Suddenly a studio gives Richard Kelly the money to make another film and production starts, anticipation only mounting when it’s chosen for competition in Cannes 2006.
Then came the backlash, as critics ripped on the film’s 160 minute early cut. Southland Tales was found to be a mess; no one was able to grasp what it was even attempting to do and half of its audience walked out of the theater by the halfway point. The film remained in production limbo for more than a year, despite its setting of July 4, 2008 getting closer by the day. Cut to the present, when critics seem unable to make heads or tales of the film and instead are offering completely polarized views. Which is to say that many are quickly calling it either a complete failure or a masterpiece, without recognizing that it may be a little of both.
To put it simply, Southland Tales is about the end of the world. In the film, a device has been made that is ripping apart the fourth dimension, and what lies beyond it is either salvation or destruction. In either case, there is no going back. Involved in either covering or uncovering this mystery is an amnesiac actor-turned-politician (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), an L.A. police officer and his twin being used by at least one covert agency (Sean William Scott), and a striper/media mogul trying to obtain the fame and fortune she always felt she deserved (Sarah Michelle Gellar). Amidst these characters are more than 20 smaller characters who dip in and out of the main conspiracy plotline, though keeping track of them is more work than it’s worth.
It sounds like a mish-mash of semi-nonsensical character and events because that's exactly what the plot is like. It doesn’t help that Southland Tales is composed of parts IV-VI of a six-part series with the first - and far more clear - half of the story told in comic books. While the film opens with a hasty catch-up of its own backstory, making much sense of this exposition is more of a chore than doing what the film really wants you to do: sit back and enjoy the ride.
In terms of style, few films can match Southland Tales. Kelly’s previous feature managed to look like a big-budget sci-fi film despite being made with only $4.5 million. This time out, the director was given around $20 million, and the result is spectacular, riffing on everything from blockbuster to musical, high-concept hyperlink film to gritty noir. The film’s sounds are made to match, with Radiohead's “Planet Telex” playing one minute and Beethoven’s ninth symphony the next, all of which are held together by Moby. Although this sounds like the film is cribbing from Quentin Tarantino, Southland Tales pulls its chief influences from David Lynch and Paul Verhoeven, with a tone of surreal horror mixed with over-the-top satiric action. Basically, it’s like nothing else out there.
All of these elements point to why the film is also so hard to ingest. Things like character development and a cohesive plot are thrown to the wind in favor of paying heed to cinematic conventions and giving fan service. The effect of this is that each scene in Southland Tales - in fact, nearly every shot - is impressive and exciting while the sum of the parts just doesn’t seem to work.
Somehow though, the result is satisfying, even if it’s only the satisfaction of seeing something truly new. Foreign films are cut some slack when they allow style to overwhelm substance, whether it’s the unrealistic clichés of Breathless or the serpentine fantasies of 2046. Surely the same allowance could be made for Southland Tales, one of the boldest and most ambitious exhibitions of the possibilities of film created in the past decade. Although it’s by any reasonable means a flawed film, Southland Tales demands watching, if only for its cinematic achievements.