A Lot to Say About Kelly's Ambitious 'Southland'

Directed by: Richard Kelly, Runtime: 145 minutes
Grade: C

More than likely, you're probably familiar with director Richard Kelly's Donnie Darko if you're taking the time to discover his newest work, Southland Tales. If that's the case, then the scene in which an obscure, inexplicable stream of metaphysical goo stretching from Jake Gyllenhaal's sternum probably sticks out as a memorable and taxing piece of cinema. If you haven't seen the film, don't give it too much thought; nothing much has been ruined since that scene, even with all its theoretical analyses packed in before and afterwards, still lingers as a curiosity that's not completely discernible.

Southland Tales is, in essence, a lot like scooping up a heaping load of that strange material, slapping it on a glass slide with patriotically hued dyes to show its contents, and magnifying just the unexplainable and pensive bizarreness from his previous film. Donnie Darko challenges its viewers with erratic, albeit quite thematically consistent, science fiction mannerisms and psychological obstacles; Southland Tales, splattered in red, white, and blue anarchy across another brainstorm from Richard Kelly, manages to be visually and idealistically imaginative, but without a lick of cohesiveness.

Southland Tales exists amidst a state of mania in an altered version of the United States of America. Three years prior to the timeframe surrounding the core narrative (2008), a nuclear explosion erupted in Texas that devastated the country. Following this "attack", the government tightened its control on security measures and privacy monitoring. As seen through the eyes of the film's extensive narrator, Private Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake), this includes gunmen strategically stapled across city skylines prepped to shoot anything they deem threatening. Along with the government's shifts in police stratagems, they also utilize a new level of visual monitoring, US-IDent, to keep tabs on internet broadcasts, monetary transactions, and overall everyday activity. Throughout these stringent surface-level changes, an upheaval brews in the depths; a ragtag cluster of Marxist revolutionaries plot and scheme against the government's oppressive weight in attempts to control this election year's outcome.

Richard Kelly brought his brain to the playing field when assembling Southland Tales, that's for sure. Set in this marginally futuristic America in 2008 amidst a new universal experiment for alternate fuel usage, it opts to deride the focus on the disappearance of a precious celebrity, Boxer (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson), and his pathway that leads away from the superficialities of the modern world. While stricken with amnesia after an accident and shacking up with ex-adult movie star Krysta (Sarah Michelle Gellar), now the lead of a reality-based TV show, Boxer and his new main squeeze throw together a film screenplay that, oddly, prophesizes the way that the world will end. In the midst of both Boxer and Krysta trying to piece together how their film will financially and thematically be made, Boxer has the government, as well as a cranky lover (Mandy Moore) and her US Senator father (Holmes Osbourne), scanning the American landscape in search for him. Somehow, with Boxer's prophetic script and the words of Abilene echoing in the distance, the weight of the film gravitates towards Roland Taverner (Seann William Scott), a California cop whose relationship with his Marxist revolutionary twin brother, Ronald, will impact the fabric of the world itself.

Southland Tales, in its uneven satiric tone, exists in a densely layered, excessively over-thought environment that oozes from its pours with symbolism and critique on American culture and government society. Here, very little dodges Kelly's scathing eye - fuel consumption, citizen discomfort with overly stringent governmental control, the unnecessary mental damage inflicted on soldiers through overseas wars, both left and right wing critiques, et al. As such, nothing exists in the film without a purpose that tries to latch neatly onto its mutinous and writhing motives. Even in spite of this, Southland Tales still really tries to be a comedic insight on these points. Several choices in actors, namely a tight grasp onto numerous veterans from NBC's sketch-based Saturday Night Live (Cheri OTeri, Nora Dunn, John Lovitz, etc), lean the heavy-handed critical tone away for split seconds at a time towards a more, well, quirky layer. No matter whether it's a compliment or a detriment that the film cannot sidestep its serious topics enough to be humorous, either way it makes Southland Tales tonally uneven. There's simply too much going on in the film for it to dig in and remain focused.

It's a shame, because I can make out the bombastic and colorful pathway, even with the obscure musical numbers and unusual set design, that Kelly was trying to create with Southland Tales. He means for it to be a hybrid clash between comedic tonalities and pensive thought, and he achieves sputtering success much akin to a faulty Roman candle. I found the visuals, the music, half of the performances, and a handful of Kelly's more fleshed ideas reasonably engaging; the way it all comes together, however, is a lot like dumping a cartload of bright colors into a mixing pot and expecting a pinnacle hue of brilliance - only to see that the erratic mix folds into itself to produce nothing more than a gray mass of unrealized potential. In the midst of expansive, fathomless depth within its theories and projected connectivity about America's faults and contrivances, Southland Tales lacks the evocative core that would make its audience compelled to such a degree that they'd invest enough into its overblown complexity to make perfect sense of it all.

Everything upon everything in Kelly's film lampoons one another, creating a façade that feels more like a charade than an indulgence. An ex porn chick chugs an energy beverage with her visage on it, while a blockbuster celebrity stands and fiddles with his fingers nervously in any hectic situation; examples like these rouse a few chuckles and invoke a thought or two through their over-the-top nature, but they also break linearization and identifiableness with the audience. It's a hard balance, especially when both Sarah Michelle Gellar and The Rock do such a good job of spilling their characters from the seams with their almost plasticized caricatures. William Scott and Timberlake, oddly, deliver two of the more downscale and fathomable characters, even when the material surrounding them teeters on the flat-out unfathomable. After Abilene's narration and biblical scripture references accompanied by CG schematics that illustrate how the past 3 years went down at the start of the film, the fabricated satiric qualities later on appear, on the surface, tangible even though they lack the substantial delivery to pour flesh into its concrete shell.

Southland Tales does, in fact, share some trippy successes similar to Richard Kelly's vastly superior Donnie Darko. As it gallops towards the finish line after an exhausting two-and-a-half hour endurance run, it keeps you roped in with its handful of insane, yet attractive, qualities. Afterwards, I was left fairly vapid with a giant question mark over my head over all its oddly aligned elements. Yet, that's a similar reaction many, including myself, felt after watching Kelly's other work. Much like Donnie Darko, I found myself contemplating Southland Tales several days afterwards and, with a little gumption, felt a shade more warmth towards its convoluted wirings. It still is deeply flawed and misbalanced with its tonal awareness, not to mention just downright blatantly odd in certain patches, but Southland Tales at least musters up the cojones to think as it does. It deserves marks for its introspective psychosis, but suffers in the end from misfired execution.


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