Drenched in dark omens, 80’s nostalgia and nightmarish moments Donnie Darko is an almost perfect slice of Sci-Horror detailing the end of the world through the eyes on its main character that also managed to make us all very scared of guys in rabbit costumes. Hailed by critics and audiences alike afterwards it seemed writer and director Richard Kelly had a gargantuan task on his hands delivering his next movie and living up to everyones expectations.
The film that emerged 5 years later was Southland Tales, a sprawling action science fiction comedy thriller that was originally planned to emerge as part of a multimedia interactive experience epic composed of six 100 page graphic novels, a website and the film itself. Running at 2 hours and 25 minutes Kelly’s opus was not only a massive flop but was generally hated by those that saw it who felt disappointed that it wasn’t another Donnie Darko.
Having watched it an awful long time ago I was eager to take a trip through Southland Tales again and Arrow’s amazing Blu-ray release gave me the perfect opportunity to revisit the film that Kelly himself once described as “the thing that I’m most proud of, and I feel like it’s sort of the misunderstood child or the banished child.”
It is safe to say that Southland Tales does require several viewings to break through the confusing shell of this hugely creative curate’s egg however once you have let go of the convoluted story and mastered the multiple criss crossing characters, you discover an insane and inventive movie that is definitely flawed but also fantastic.
The first thing that strikes the viewer is the extremely eclectic cast which features pop singers like Mandy Moore, comedians like Amy Poehler, 80’s action star Christopher Lambert, director Kevin Smith and serious thespians such as Miranda Richardson and Wood Harris all staring alongside each other. Making wacky comedy actor Jon Lovitz a psychopathic cop and Wallace Shawn the voice of Rex in Toy Story, an eccentric evil inventor is inspired and the daring casting choices don’t stop there.
Most impressive are the actors chosen for the key characters all of which are wonderfully playing against type. From Sarah Michelle Gellar’s porn star slash prophet to Justin Timberlake’s mentally and psychologically scarred war veteran to Seann William Scott’s very serious turn as two kidnapped twins, the film is populated by strange figures all revolving around amnesiac movie star Boxer Santaros played with aplomb by Dwayne Johnson aka The Rock in an early and underrated performance.
Opening in an alternate America in 2005 on July 4th as the country is hit by a nuclear attack, we see the effects that catastrophic event caused on the psyche and politics of the United States as the land of the free is transformed into a totalitarian country gripped by fear and perpetually at war not only with terrorist’s and foreign powers but also its own people.
With a state run internet and media controlled by the elite, the PATRIOT Act taking away civil liberties, a fuel crisis in need of a saviour and the reinstatement of the draft sending millions of Americans to die, the USA of Southland Tales 2008 setting is a powder keg primed to explode.
Little does everyone know they are in fact on the brink of destruction as the end of the world is swiftly approaching predicted in a screenplay penned by Boxer and his girlfriend Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar) after he returned from the desert with no memory. With his wife Madeline Frost Santaros (Mandy Moore) and her Senator father and powerful mother eager to get Boxer back the couple catch the eye of anarchists group the neo-Marxist’s who want to exploit his fame and political connections in order to topple the powers that be.
But what does Boxer have to do with Baron von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn) the creator of the clean and infinite new energy source Fluid Karma or captured cop Ronald Taverner (Seann William Scott’) and his twin brother or enigmatic bible quoting veteran Private Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake) who sits atop a beachside gun emplacement narrating all the unfolding events? All the answers lie somewhere in the story although you may have trouble understanding them.
Ultimately the convoluted plot of Southland Tales is probably what turned a lot of viewers off the film however the confusion and chaos is part of Kelly’s master plan and once you embrace that fact the film is far better. At times extremely tongue in cheek Kelly is clearly deconstructing the modern blockbuster Sci-Fi movie with the films many meta moments and obtuse story, something especially apparent in the crazy climax and Boxer’s ridiculous overblown catchphrase “I’m a pimp, and pimps don’t commit suicide.”
Although at first it feels strange for Kelly to revisit the end of the world after he did it so well in Donnie Darko, it is in fact the perfect place for Kelly to attack noughties culture, the war on terror and the politics and facist attitudes that emerged in the United States post-9/11, taking them to the darkest place possible to shine a light on their insidious nature.
In the list of genre’s the film traverses the most important yet most under appreciated one is comedy. Taken too seriously the film quickly falls apart but I would posit that Kelly’s movie is far more social satire and jet black farce than it is anything else. From the Verhoven-esque news reports and adverts (which include a Fluid Karma ad featuring two trucks fucking) to the Lynchian moments of song and dance to the absurdist characters obsessed with stardom it is packed with parody and cynicism.
Thats not to say Southland Tales doesn’t deliver in the action, drama or spectacle and viewing it feels like binge watching a whole season of some surreal series packed into one film. The impressive visuals Kelly throws in include animation, religious imagery, musical numbers, special effects and dreamlike drug trips to create an experience you might not understand but you certainly wont forget .
A daring and challenging movie with a killer ensemble cast although not as evocative and haunting as Donnie Darko, in Southland Tales writer and director Richard Kelly serves up a shocking satirical strike against America that is still just as relevant and entertaining today as it ever was.