REVIEW! Southland Tales
15 • 144 mins • OUT NOW
Director: Richard Kelly
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Sean William Scott, Holmes Osborne, Miranda Richardson
You’ve been waiting for this one.Since Donnie Darko, you’ve been anxious to see what Richard Kelly would do next. When Southland Tales was announced, the scant details were salivating. It was a… musical? Starring The Rock as an actor and Sarah Michelle Gellar as a porn star? The only visual clue as to the movie’s tone was an MPEG file on the net showing two cars copulating. Last year, the film screened at Cannes in a three-hour cut. It was roundly booed by critics. “Don’t worry,” you thought, “those stuffed shirts were never going to dig it anyway”. Kelly retreats to the edit suite for a year. And now, you’re pumped for the final unveiling…
You might want to take a moment to curb your enthusiasm slightly.
From the intro showing a nuclear strike in the heart of Texas igniting WWIII, to the closing moments in a flying ice-cream truck, Southland Tales overloads you with information. Images of conflict and death constantly flash up on the screen as Kelly flings puzzle pieces at you like bullets. Reviews of the Cannes screening were disappointingly vague on plot details, and as it turns out, “disappointingly vague” is a good description for a movie that spends most of its time flicking between Dwayne Johnson’s Bogus Journey and CNN.
Set ten minutes in the future, it’s ostensibly the tale of the Apocalypse, complete with Biblical references and mystical mutterings – although ultimately, this is a bit of a red herring. There are some decent hard SF concepts, mostly involving perpetual motion and wireless energy, but again, it all gets lost in the shuffle.
In fact, there isn’t a story as such, as a twitchy Johnson pinballs from scene to scene. Which would be okay, if the majority of the scenes were interesting, but with the exception of a bizarre musical number, they mostly aren’t. It might be a comment on civil liberties, midgets and a teenager’s rights to horniness, but we’re grasping at straws here. It’s a scrapbook of different video and film stocks, a collage of confusion and kooky characters, in which even the actors appear to be floundering.
While Donnie Darko thrived by leaving much open to individual interpretation, Southland Tales is explicit, and that only makes you realise that even Kelly’s slightly lost in his own material. He suggests that repeat viewings of both the film and the accompanying multimedia (websites, graphic novels) will give you more insight as to what’s going on, but will it really? Our guess: no. Come on Richard, it’s a movie, not a ruddy art installation.
“Incomplete special effects” was Kelly’s excuse for the reaction at Cannes, but even with the (minimal) effects complete, it’s still a mess of seemingly random scenes Scotch-taped together with Justin Timberlake’s oblique narration. You get the impression Kelly could edit this film forever and still not get anything coherent out of it. He’s grasping for something important about post 9-11 governmental control, but he just can’t resist collapsing on the crutch of wormholes and time-travel, destroying any point he might have – it all feels hopelessly adolescent; in its struggle to appear deep, it even resorts to quoting Jane’s Addiction lyrics verbatim.
And so it ends, not with a bang but with a handshake. After the insane Repo Man-esque conclusion, you slump down into your cinema seat, exhausted, and all you can think is: this is the way Kelly’s career ends.