The Reeler


November 14, 2007

Southland Tales

Kelly's all-American, mondo apocalypto allegory has to be seen to be believed

Even if Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales weren't so fiercely politicized, it would still be a tremendously polarizing work of art. Set in an alternate 2006 reality where World War III began the previous year with the detonation of a nuclear bomb in Abilene, Tx., and society has become riddled with paranoid surveillance, the film succeeds as a series of contextualized paraphrases rather than a unified story. Kelly creates vague situations just crazy enough to function according to their own logic, allowing momentary lapses in its steadfast incoherence; much of Southland Tales relies on paradigmatic symbolism, easy to read in individual clauses despite not quite gelling together.

The film’s opening citation is from T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men, though the original phrasing of the poem (“This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper”) is altered to suit the movie's personalized chaos theory (“This the way the world ends/Not with a whimper but a bang”). Additionally, the actual casting decisions have ulterior motives: The actors don’t play characters, they play themselves playing characters. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson plays off his blockbuster persona as Boxer Santaros, a Schwarzenegger-like action star with ties to the Republican Party. Kelly designed the movie to play off of a string of parallels to contemporary society, a goal he clearly puts ahead of the need for a linear narrative. It's a collage of armchair politics packed into a metaphoric mushroom cloud of trippiness.

Boxer finds himself in Southern California when the movie opens, struck with amnesia and suddenly in the home of a Los Angeles porn star named Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar). The two begin collaborating on a screenplay that calls for Boxer to play a cop. To prepare for the role, he takes a camera for a ride-along with a local police officer named Ronald Taverner (Sean William Scott). What he doesn’t know is that (here goes) Ronald isn’t a cop at all, but rather the twin brother of a kidnapped cop (also Scott), taken hostage while his sibling pretends to be a fascist cop in a staged scene where he's supposed to kill a black man, an act that would be caught on Boxer's camera, leading to a massive political scandal surrounding racism in the police force. But the trick doesn't work, and things start going wrong in all kinds of directions.

That breathless synopsis takes you through the first 30 of the film's sprawling 144 minutes, during which Wallace Shawn pops up as a scheming technocrat with a new energy production method, Amy Poehler plays an activist-performance artist with ties to the underground and Kevin Smith (surprisingly effective) hides behind a bushy white beard spouting some kind of time-traveling nonsense that might be key to the movie's inconclusive conclusion. Because Southland Tales creates so many layers of plot and navigates through a series of narrative mood swings with schizophrenic velocity, it can only be criticized in singular units. Even then, its appeal must bear the caveat of being wildly subjective.

Advertise on The Reeler

Kelly takes a critical approach to pop culture. He parses recent entertainment forms with references to reality television, Internet obsessions and alt-rock, presuming that these superficial modes of interaction inform our relationship to the larger equation of human existence. It's abstract stuff, but too open-ended to be labeled as profound. None of the representations of contemporary elements are concrete, but every quotation feels familiar (the sensationalized treatment of hard news through flashy internet designs, for example). By relying on mainstream codes to convey his ideas about civilization, Southland Tales becomes a mainstream creation, albeit a confusing one.

When the movie premiered at Cannes last year, its mangled narrative was reviled by virtually everyone. The new cut of the film looses 19 minutes of its original insanity, but the dissonant tonal arrangement synchs up with the reactions to the original version. I recall being particularly intrigued by reports of a dance sequence featuring Justin Timberlake (playing an Iraq war veteran and the story's cryptic narrator) lip-synching to the Killers' "All These Things That I’ve Done," and indeed, the scene is the highlight of the Southland experience: Blonde bombshells adorned in red, white and blue contort around a gun store as Timberlake pours beer over his head in a glorious, avant-garde portrait of American myopia. The lyrics of the song's chorus ("I got soul, but I'm not a soldier") essentially outline the thrust of the film’s post-9/11 commentary, insisting that even the non-patriotic sorts contribute to an environment blackened by fear and suspicion.

Southland Tales really needs to be seen to be believed, or at least admired for its ambition. At 31, Kelly has already proven himself utterly original in his chosen mode of expression. His debut, Donnie Darko, managed a cult following because it had an identifiable protagonist and one principle storyline, so viewers had an easy time filling in the gaps or just getting swept up in its mysterious aura. Southland Tales is a tougher sell and less refined, but historic in its application of didacticism to muddled wackiness. “When the shit hits the fan,” one character says, “it all sounds the same.” Kelly's forecast of an apocalyptic future is smugly inchoate, but that is exactly its intention. When it comes to stories about the end of the world, I'll still take Dr. Strangelove, but Southland Tales deserves its own classification.

Comments (1)

Saw this yesterday. Good job reviewing whatever the hell I saw. Can see the DVD being a hit with mushroom enhanced viewers proclaiming "I get it now."

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Search The Reeler
Join the Mailing List

RSS Feed


Send a Tip