Southland Tales

Southland Tales (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. Richard Kelly
viewed: 04/14/08

Man, this movie really was bad!

Director Richard Kelly, whose 2001 film Donnie Darko became a cult fixture, decided to go for the grandiose in his first follow up film, Southland Tales.  It’s apocalypse again, a strangely 1980’s brand of nuclear apocalypse, with nuclear bombs laying waste to Texas and other parts of the globe.  But then it’s heavily peppered with a blitz of current issues of terrorism and alternative energy and is set in what was the film’s present day of 2006.  The science fiction is of a near future, now passed, quickly less relevant.  It’s sprawling in scope and the number of characters that it tries to manage.  It’s a complete mess.

The number of B-list or lower celebrities who appear in the film is almost mind-numbing and a bit jarring as they appear.  The film stars Dwayne Johnson (nee “The Rock”), Sarah Michelle Gellar, and features a bunch of former Saturday Night Live cast members including John Lovitz, Cheri Oteri, Amy Poehler, and Janeane Garafalo.  There are way too many to mention.  And actually, I didn’t even recall seeing Garafalo.  They vary greatly in what they offer to the film, but for me, I felt much more aware of who they were in real life than who they were supposed to be in the film.  I kind of think that may be part of the film’s pastiche-like qualities.

Kelly uses all kinds of techniques throughout the film, with a multitude of focal points.  The use of computer graphics and animation (occasionally put in as part of news reports) is very odd.  A lot of it is very cheap-looking.  Was that the intent or a result of cost-management?  The work is sprawling in so many ways.  There are so many double-crosses and moles and characters switching alliances and even doppelgangers that it’s hard to keep up with.  And mostly I didn’t care to bother trying.

It’s been 6 years since I watched Donnie Darko and the film has become a cultural touchpoint in that time, a genuine cult film.  Since then, Kelly wrote the script for the choppy but strangely entertaining Domino (2005), which was directed by Tony Scott.  And then this.  I’d read about it for a long time before it was released.  The production took a long time and when it hit Cannes in 2006 it got severely panned, which effected its theatrical cut and release, as well as its promotion.  Southland Tales got little hype, and now seeing it, it’s clear why that was the case.

Kelly’s vision of doom, poeticised, self-reflexive (Johnson’s precognition of the end of the world is written out in a screenplay that is coming true), glances through some grand vision of the world, with characters who are meant to represent all walks of society, from the grunts to the presidents.  And it’s meant to be comedic.  The comedy is also annoying.  It’s a combination of the broad and the arch when subtlety would perhaps have been much more apt

The word that kept coming to mind was “pastiche”.  The film tries to digest so much, for its vision to be so encompassing, and in the end it’s just convoluted and confusing, rarely ever clever.

The whole film is one big disaster.  It’s not unwatchable by any means, but it’s pretty bad.  This film, if it becomes a cult film, will be more along the Showgirls (1995) variety than the Donnie Darko hip coolness.

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