Looking back at Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales

Director Richard Kelly followed up the cult success of Donnie Darko with the oft-derided Southland Tales. Ryan looks back at a flawed film worthy of reassessment…

Cinema history is filled with directors who never quite lived up to the promise of their first film. Despite a glittering career as a director, writer and actor, popular opinion dictates that Orson Welles never made another movie quite as good as his debut, Citizen Kane, and Michael Cimino followed up the Oscar-winning The Deer Hunter with Heaven’s Gate, a film whose financial failure not only brought down a Hollywood studio (United Artists, RIP), but also prompted one critic to famously write “You might suspect Mr. Cimino sold his soul to the Devil to obtain the success of The Deer Hunter, and the Devil has just come around to collect.”

When a rough cut of Richard Kelly’s second movie, the lengthy sci-fi satire Southland Tales, debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in 2005, it appeared that the director had put together a picture almost as critically loathed as Heaven’s Gate.

In his 2007 review, critic Roger Ebert described the audience reaction. “I was dazed, confused, bewildered, bored, affronted and deafened by the boos all around me”, he said, later describing what occurred as “the most disastrous Cannes press screening since […] The Brown Bunny”, referring to Vincent Gallo’s avante-garde film that caused a furore in 2003.

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The finished cut of Southland Tales, 20 minutes shorter than the one screened at Cannes, later appeared on just 63 screens in the US, and as a result, failed to make much more than $275,000 at the US box-office. For a film that cost an estimated $17 million to make, it was widely perceived as a dismal misfire for a director who’d shown so much promise with the cult success of Donnie Darko.

Viewed today, it’s not hard to see why many critics were so bewildered by Southland Tales. A sprawling sci-fi with dozens of characters, an awkward tone and muddled attempts at interweaving multiple plot strands, it’s an over-reaching, saturated mess, though certainly not without its moments of brilliance.

Dryly narrated by Justin Timberlake, who plays a soldier who watches over the Santa Monica coast through the sight of his high-powered sniper rifle, Southland Tales is set in a near-future Los Angeles that teeters on the brink of anarchy. Reeling from a nuclear terrorist attack on Texas, the whole of the US is on constant alert, with the government ceaselessly monitoring every aspect of civilian life. Meanwhile, a rebel faction seeks to incite a violent revolution.

In a sea of characters and stories, Southland Tales’ lynchpin comes in the unlikely form of Dwayne Johnson. He’s perfectly cast as Boxer Santaros, a Hollywood action star who’s co-written a script that appears to predict the end of the world. His writing partner is porn star turned topical debate show host Krysta Now Now, played superbly by Sarah Michelle Gellar.

Meanwhile, a group of neo-Marxists kicks against California’s oppressive regime, an amnesiac cop (Seann William Scott) searches for his identical brother who’s tied up in the back of Christopher Lambert’s ice cream van, while a scientist called Baron von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn) has created a new form of energy that may be about to cause a global catastrophe.

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If all this sounds impenetrably confusing, that’s because it is. And to make matters worse, Kelly’s screenplay has characters going under different names (Boxer Santaros also goes by the name Jericho Cane), and constantly flicks back and forth between different strands of his meandering plot. Profuse narration and numerous RoboCop/Starship Troopers-style news snippets try to help, but merely add to the film’s sense of bloated claustrophobia.

Kelly’s gone for a broad, obliquely comedic style in Southland Tales that shows a strong influence from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (a film Kelly has referred to as a favourite), but doesn’t always hit its mark. There are obvious, slightly juvenile gags about America’s perceived obsession with elephantine cars, and some shrill, disconcerting performances. Wallace Shawn’s turn as a Nobel-winning scientist is horribly grating, and Miranda Richardson is ill suited for the role of Nana Mae Frost, the head of the all-pervading surveillance organisation, US-Ident.

These odd performances, along with a script that clanks along with only sporadic moments of the quotable greatness of Donnie Darko, hint at an imagination spinning wildly, excitedly out of control.

Having said all this, there are still glimmers of the promise Kelly showed in his debut feature. Southland‘s weird tone, which recalls Doctor Strangelove and David Lynch films, such as Mulholland Drive, is seldom less than hypnotic, and almost every misjudged performance is counter-balanced by a great piece of acting from a member of Kelly’s insanely eclectic cast. Justin Timberlake is superb in the scenes in which he physically appears, displaying the same charisma he’d later bring to The Social Network.

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As mentioned earlier, Dwayne Johnson is excellent, too, as a character evidently based on Arnold Schwarzenegger (just to make the link obvious, Jericho Cane is the name of Arnie’s character in End Of Days). Gamely playing with his own tough-guy image, this is easily the most interesting performance from Johnson to date, portraying Santaros/Cane as a hulking yet gentle coward who goes all saucer-eyed at the sight of real-world violence.

There are isolated moments in Southland Tales that, just as you’re about to fold your arms in huffy frustration, pull you back from the brink. This is when Kelly’s weird form of satire hits home – its paranoid, dystopic climate, in which hawkish right-wing despots clash with similarly fanatical left-wing Marxists, feels absolutely spot-on for the Bush, Jr. era in which it was written. And its exploration of the strangeness of Los Angeles life – its muscle beaches, wealth and loud, gas-guzzling sports cars – is often vividly drawn.

You could argue, too, that each member of Southland Tales’ central cast is a representative of the general US public. Justin Timberlake’s battle-scarred veteran is a stand-in for soldiers fighting in the Middle East, while Sarah Michelle Gellar’s ex-porn star turned activist and entrepreneur is an analogue for a generation of youths frustrated by moral and social constraints, for example. Viewed in 2011, it’s hard to work out exactly why critics rounded on Kelly’s second effort as they did. It’s not a perfect film, but neither is it one worthy of derision or booing in the aisles.

In the days after watching Southland Tales, I found myself thinking about moments from it over and over again. Justin Timberlake’s unexpected lip-synch to The Killers’ All These Things That I’ve Done during a drug trip. Johnson’s jittery, hand wringing performance. Seann William Scott’s brilliant concluding speech.

Southland Tales may be an example of an ambitious director failing to live up to the target he set himself, but it’s still a fascinating, individual piece of sci-fi that lingers in the mind.

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