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Written & Directed by: Richard Kelly
Southland Tales, an apocalyptic fever-dream of a film, is both, or perhaps neither, a failure and a startling success. As a political fable and a largely impenetrable allegory, let's say it's a spectacular failure. All at once, it's an exhilarating and confounding examination of cinematic spectatorship, metaphysics, Christian mythology, soldier's remorse and the current state of Americo-geopolitics. It also dabbles—why not, at this point?—in time travel theology and a rift in the fabric of the fourth dimension, but that sort of philosopho-scientifica is only to be expected from Richard Kelly, the film's young director who, six years ago, made the impressive and unexpected Donnie Darko.
Like that film, Southland Tales seems hell-bent on contemplating a series of compelling cosmic conundrums that no one but Kelly has ever bothered to brood over. (For example, if a time traveler came into contact with his double, would it affect the speed of the earth's rotation?) For the first several reels, I really wasn't sure what to make of Southland Tales; the early parts of the film are mired down with extended exposition, setting up Kelly's batshit yet surprisingly, and frighteningly, reasonable vision of an American future in which all hell has broken loose following a nuclear attack on the Texas town of Abeline. "This is the way the world ends," Justin Timberlake, our narrator perched atop an ocean turret, informs us, alluding to T.S. Eliot. (Set on the eve of the '08 presidential election, the Republican candidates for president and vice president are, respectively, men named Eliot and "Bobby" Frost. Make of it what you will.)
Ostensibly, Southland Tales is a somewhat long-winded account of terrorism's indirect effect on civil liberties, the hitherto rowdiest and most lyrical expression of post-9/11 and Iraq War anxiety, but though politics are a substantial part of the film, they're really only the jumping off point. That's the thing about Southland Tales: it's madly ambitious to the point of becoming intimidatingly sprawling. (Trying to actually summarize the plot would be pointlessly reductive, as it's far too complex to boil down in a reasonable amount of space, thus the film's central problem.) Like Mulholland Dr., which it evokes and borrows from—including the songstress Rebekah Del Rio, who pops up to sing what sounds like the National Anthem—it seems like it might be better suited to a television series or some other more leisurely narrative medium. (A three-part prequel, written by Kelly, has been published as a graphic novel.) That it's tonally inconsistent, bouncing carelessly between puzzlingly broad comedy and straight-faced earnestness, is no help in trying to parse its message and meaning.
It's easy, as many critics (and audience members, surely) have done, to write-off Southland Tales as a convoluted catastrophe, but it's so dense with message and meaning that it's not something to be so easily written off. The film may not exactly work, but at least it's not as a result of laziness or lack of substance like so much substandard fare. After Kelly gets his exposition out of the way (one wonders if a pre-film backstory handout, as I understand was given out to accompany David Lynch's Dune, might have been appropriate), he starts flexing his technical muscles and the film gets tighter and tighter in their grip until the credits roll and the audience, or the parts of it that haven't walked out anyway, is left breathless. Nearly the entirety of the film's long climactic sequence, set upon a "megazeppelin", is a masterpiece of form, and both a musical sequence/beer commercial set to a Killers tune, featuring a lip-synching Timberlake on a break from his narrator role, and a scene in which Seann William Scott teases his "delayed reflection" in a mirror are unforgettable. (As is, to cite one more, the image of two cars boinking one another, a nod to the fornicating airplanes in Dr. Strangelove's opening credits.)
Through Mr. Scott's character, one thing Kelly's film does, and does extremely well, is expressionistically investigate the nature of remorse, and as such, for me, it recalled last year's much-derided (wrongly so!), poetically epic The Fountain. Mr. Scott, most familiar from his turns as Stifler in the American Pie series, gives the film's most revelatory performance, although Sarah Michelle Gellar, a co-star, proves herself a surprisingly deft comedienne. (I assumed she was only capable of producing lame horror movies.) Scott shows a dramatic range I would never have expected; unfortunately, it doesn't look like a turning point for his career as, according to IMDb, his upcoming projects include titles like Ball's Out and Coxblocker.
The entire film is populated by cultural icons, including the Rock, er, Dwayne Johnson, Mandy Moore and a handful of SNL castmembers past and present, all of whom find themselves hooked up with the underground movement resisting the sinisterly corrupt bureaucracy oppressing the film's near-future United States. Despite the film's showbiz satire and Hollywood send-up, the suggestion is that the American opposition, for better or for worse anyway, begins in Hollywood, and hence the film. Indeed, one of the government's monitors in the film, and one of the audience's surrogates, played by Michele Durrett gluttonously stuffing cheese puffs into her mouth (does anything more aptly spell "American"?), becomes politically active only after she reads the prophetic screenplay-within-the-film that parallels the story we're seeing. That is, Southland Tales says that it takes Southland Tales to help save the day, and of course ordinary people are only going to see it if there are famous people in it.