A Sound A Extras C-
starring Dwayne Johnson, Seann William Scott, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Justin Timberlake
written and directed by Richard Kelly
by Walter Chaw Call it professional vanity, or just vanity vanity, but I like to be the iconoclast. I want to be the one who understands the movie nobody else seems to understand--the lone champion of Unleashed as a sharp critique of popular East/West relationships, for instance. There are times, I think, it's the only reason I go to films that are riding waves of negative buzz or frankly otherwise lacking much cause for confidence. Southland Tales, Richard Kelly's follow-up to his cult classic Donnie Darko, had the bad buzz (from a legendarily jeered screening at Cannes) but a great pedigree despite the extent to which Kelly had begun to cast Donnie Darko as a fortuitous accident through his DVD commentary for that film, his ill-wrought Director's Cut of the same, and his script for the excrescent Domino.
Still, you could pretend that his own lack of insight into what made Donnie Darko great (the Hughes-ian teen angst, not the time-travel philosophy) was a gag, or that the reason Domino was so terrible had more to do with Tony Scott at the helm than with Kelly behind the typewriter. It's my long-winded way of saying I went into Southland Tales with this idea in my head that I was going to be the guy to find something in it no one else had. It should have been warning enough that the last time I felt this way about a movie was Guy Ritchie's abominable Revolver. Far from the next Mulholland Drive that J. Hoberman proclaimed it from Cannes, Southland Tales is genuinely poor. It's the sort of experience you feel embarrassed about even though you had nothing to do with it, because it's not just a mess, it's a pretentious mess inaugurated and executed by the guy who borrows his opinions from cable punditry and his originality from popular culture. It's not a satire except accidentally by the fact of it, its casting of Justin Timberlake, Mandy Moore, The Rock (pop stars/wrestling star), and the entire cast of SNL not the intended "ironic" but the ironic "absolutely perfect."
Maybe it's that Kelly simply doesn't have the smarts, the reputation, the canon behind him, to do something like this his second time at bat. The picture lacks philosophy to tie all its fragments together. (Perhaps the best comparison is illustrated by a cameo from Rebekah Del Rio.) It owes a lot to Philip K. Dick (particularly The Man in the High Castle, with liberal sprinklings of A Scanner Darkly) but it's not a Philip K. Dick; it owes a lot to Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (especially Cat's Cradle, which Kelly himself has adapted into an unproduced screenplay), but it's not a Vonnegut; it owes a little to Tim O'Brien (especially Going After Cacciato) and Neil Stephenson (Cryptonomicon), but it's neither an O'Brien nor a Stephenson. It is exactly what it is: a jigsaw with half the pieces its own, the other half a mélange from thirty different puzzles that I gotta believe Kelly didn't think anyone would track down. In any case, the finished product is a freakin' disaster. The thrust appears to be that fear pushes Americans into Republican arms and that Republican arms are designed to start wars in the Middle and Far Easts. It wants to talk about the dangers of religion, technology, capitalism, and beer (that is, "Texas")--about pornography and globalization and hedonism--as it counts down to a doomsday predicted by a Donnie Darko wormhole shitting out the back of a Good Humor wagon. It suggests itself as a post-modern, Charlie Kaufman meta piece in which an in-text screenplay seems to be influencing the external narrative, acting as a catalyst for this world's increasingly bizarre behaviour; and then there's the evil Orwellian Patriot Act bureaucracy, run by Snow White's wicked queen and seven dwarfs. The punchline is that it wants its splinters and ruins to be forgiven in the constant mis-quotation of Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot. It only really works as a brutal parody of the praise lavished on Kelly and Donnie Darko, way back when Donnie Darko came across as a brilliant evocation of the loneliness of being a teenager instead of as something written by someone with the mentality of a teenager, drunk on (P.K.) Dick and delusions of topical sentience. Who knew, in other words, that the moony, solipsistic Donnie Darko was an autobiography?At the centre of this metaverse is Boxer Santaros (The Rock), an action star found wandering in the desert with his memory wiped in an alternate 2008 where terrorists have detonated a nuclear warhead in two towns in Texas, turning the U.S. into a police state. There's one amazing, transcendent sequence in the picture: set in an arcade on the Santa Monica Pier, it sees narrator Private Pilot Abilene (Timberlake) lip-synching to The Killers in a blood-stained shirt as chorus girls dance around him. It's everything of substance in Southland Tales distilled into 150 seconds from 150 soul-numbing minutes: the confluence of sex and war, bemused distraction and the age of missing information, popular iconography and the erection of the collective ego; Kelly's missed his calling as a music-video director. The rest of it, with its parsing of big-topic issues like alternative energy sources, global warming, illegal surveillance, and matter/anti-matter*, plays out like a conversation with that guy you're friends with who knows just enough to come to all the wrong conclusions. The greatest crime of Southland Tales is that it hasn't earned its nihilism. In flailing against everything, it has, Team America: World Police-like, taken on nothing. It's as effective a political satire as that schizoid guy in a sandwich board proclaiming the end of the world with slurred Bible passages and flotsam from "Under Milkwood" as ironclad corroboration. And it's egregiously out of date now that a popular, liberal President has taken the White House--and several traditionally Red states with him.
Wallace Shawn is in this thing, along with Zelda Rubenstein, Jon Lovitz, Cheri Oteri, Seann William Scott, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Booger, Nora Dunn, Highlander, Bai Ling, Will Sasso, Amy Poehler, and Silent Bob, each of them dragged onto the proscenium for a skit or two and then dragged off again, many never to return. When Southland Tales apes the key visual effect from Donnie Darko in its stupid conclusion, there's a sense inescapable that Kelly's well of invention has been dredged and wasn't terribly deep in the first place. Watch it with Revolver in a double feature of films from directors who really had you going there for a while, didn't they? Yeah, me too. Meanwhile, fire up Kelly's Blu-ray-exclusive commentary track for another creepy convergence with Ritchie's self-deluded enlightenment. Here's another difference between Kelly and David Lynch, by the way: Lynch never thinks he can explain himself. (He certainly doesn't act like he's doing anything extraordinary.) Kelly, though, mistakes "flipping" T.S. Eliot's famous "Hollow Men" refrain of "This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper" for clever when it's actually akin to "flipping" a phrase like "that duck's not gonna sick itself." It's already flipped, genius.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Anyhoo, Kelly goes along talking over his flick, presented on BD in a 2.40:1, 1080p transfer. The colours are vibrant (although the palette's dominated by steely blues), the blacks are pitch, and there's a fine, unmistakably-Super35 grain to the image that brings home a theatrical experience most viewers never got to have. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio is excellent and aggressively discrete; its mix might be the best thing about the film and it's reproduced here with fullness and a lot of incredibly precise detail. I caught myself enjoying the experience of listening to Southland Tales independent of my reaction to the movie proper. But back to the yakker: Kelly has a moment late in the game when he jokes about Southland Tales' reception, but, like much of the film's philosophy, he misconstrues the hostility aimed at it for frustration at not understanding the bigger themes at work in it. In truth, the hostility arises from being forced to sit through a two-and-a-half hour rant that Kelly's not quite qualified to deliver, yet delivers anyway. The writer-director spends a lot of time, Guy Ritchie-like, trying to explain his film to the idiots in the audience, succeeding mainly in describing the action.
Key is his urgent desire that we pick up the three largely-ignored graphic novels that were released as "prequels" to this film (which is Episode IV, of course--and if you're ripping off someone, don't rip off an asshole like George Lucas). In case you haven't done the prerequisite course work required of it, these three volumes--"I: Two Roads Diverge," "II: Fingerprints," and "III: The Mechanics"--are included as visual/text files on Blu-ray. Next is "USIDent TV: Surveilling The Southland" (34 mins.), your standard making-of sexed up with CGI graphics of the flick's spook house. Kelly speaks again, in his vague, inarticulate way, about how he was inspired to make some kind of statement on how messed up everything is and how liberal and conservative fucktards are equally fucktards and everything and how this is an election year. Of note is that Lou Taylor Pucci in a beard bears an uncanny resemblance to Hedwig's bassist Yitzhak; also of note is that all the cast members interviewed (no principals) confess that the script was completely meaningless to them. There seems this attendant fear among certain faux-intellectuals that they're missing something when in fact there's sometimes nothing to get. "This is the Way the World Ends" (10 mins.) is an animated--badly animated--bedtime story of how mankind left the world for invertebrates. On boot, the disc assaults us with the "buy a Blu-Ray machine!" pitch as well as trailers for Hancock, 21, and Casino Royale. Southland Tales may be worth a look for that Justin Timberlake performance--but then again, that's what YouTube is for. Originally published: July 29, 2009.
*What is it lately with antimatter, anyway? Star Trek, Angels & Demons... As far as new archetypes go, this one's a little ominous. return