Southland Tales

The excesses of success: such a pretentious and unremarkable opening would normally be derided, but for this second feature by Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly it seems perfectly apt. Long and winding as it is, there is very little substance in this film, and yet what we have here is apparently the ‘edited’ version which is supposed to be more focused and plot driven. Maybe so if the man behind the wheel of the plot is an over-eager Richard Hammond…

Following an attack on the US mainland, the near-apocalyptic future is upon us. The 2008 presidential election is in full progress, and the ongoing war in Iraq is still showing no signs of abating. Enter action movie star Boxer Santaros (Johnson), a man found in the deserts of California by adult film star Krysta Now (Gellar). Having lost his memory Santaros finds himself following a police officer (Scott) who is on a secret mission to frame the star for a fake murder. The officer has himself been replaced by his identical twin who has been captured by a group of rogue Neo-Marxist terrorists hell bent on interfering in the elections. Watching the proceedings from his Venice Beach vantage point is drug dealing soldier Private Alblene (Timberlake) who takes pity on the viewer and attempts to narrate the plot which involves a peroxide Jon Lovitz, perpetual motion energy and two cars getting frisky in a driveway.

If that sounds complicated that’s not the half of it, and given that Donnie Darko was such a tight and compelling study of quantum physics (wrapped up in a teen drama with a great soundtrack), all we have here is a decent selection of music and a series of well meaning cameos. Completed in time for Cannes in 2006, the time in between may have provided unintentional basis for some of the films many themes, but it remains as unbalanced and under developed as Heather Mills on a diet.

The performances range from bland to mediocre with only Gellar playing against type warranting any credit, although it does seem a tad desperate to go for such a headline grabbing role. Wanting to like this film as much as I could has not made me want to recommend it to anyone, a sad waste of time for all concerned… especially the viewer.

Neil Davey * Richard Kelly's last film was Donnie Darko. Yes, some of you no doubt hated it for it's Mobius Strip of a timeline and underlying astrophysics and spirituality but many of us adored it. It is certainly one of the few films of the last 20 years that actually rewards repeated viewings. Hell, it's still the only film I've bought on DVD that I watched, then watched again with the commentary and then watched yet again having heard Kelly's interesting — and Gyllenhaal's hlarious — insights.

Southland Tales, Kelly's long-awaited follow-up, is similarly remarkable. Just not in the good way. How can you go from the assured dark wit and intelligence of Donnie Darko to this utter mess? Booed off screen — and rightly so — at Cannes in 2006, Kelly has re-edited and tweaked this tale so that it makes more sense. Given that the film is Episodes IV, V and VI – hmm, wonder where he got THAT idea – and that episodes I, II and III were graphic novels you needed to read before seeing the movie, more sense shouldn't be hard to add. However, if this is now much improved, one pities the Cannes crowd. It's a monstrosity. Clearly the clout of DD meant that everyone wanted to work with Kelly but it appears the success of DD meant that Kelly bottled this one. Big time.

As Cassam mentions above, there is no way of synopsising the entire plot in the space we have here. There are two reasons for that. One, it's so stupidly involved and surreal. Two — and perhaps the bigger reason — is that I have absolutely no idea what it's about. Dotted around the basic premise mentioned above (basic! ha!) are assorted characters, such as Scott's young cop replaced by his activist twin brother and eccentric European scientists with the sorts of names — Soberin Exx, Baron Von Westphalen — that even Rocky & Bullwinkle would have ruled out for reasons of naffness. All are, presumably, symbols of one thing or another but you know what? Life is too short to analyse such pretentious, unwieldy crap, particularly if you've already given 145 precious minutes to watching this bloated apocalyptic tale.

Kelly's undoubted visual sense means that it's never boring but it's impossible to shake the feeling — probably because it's a cold hard fact — that you're watching a clearly talented director polish a turd of gigantic proportions. A quite astonishing nonsensical mess.

Official Site
Southland Tales at IMDb

Neil Davey is a freelance writer who specialises in things you can do sitting down, such as travelling, eating, drinking, watching films, interviewing famous people and playing video games. (And catching the occasional salmon.) Neil is the author of two Bluffer's Guides (Chocolate, and Food, both of which make lovely presents, ahem), and, along with Stuart O'Connor, is a co-founder of Screenjabber. Neil also writes / has written for The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, Square Mile, Delicious Magazine, Sainsbury's Magazine, Foodism, Escapism, Hello! and Square Meal.

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