Southland Tales ★★★★

Back in high school, I finally (after many attempts) finished my first feature screenplay. It was terrible. Revolving around a kid who washes up on the shores of a small Cape Cod town only to discover the sleepy hamlet is overrun with vampires (and he is, of course, one of the last true vampire hunters), it was low pulp, thoroughly packed with every influence I'd acquired up to roughly eighteen years of age (I distinctly remember coming up with the concept while being bored to tears in theaters by Frank Darabont's THE MAJESTIC). The town was basically Castle Rock, the kid was me, there were monologues about God, the Devil, Fate, Shakespeare, an office invasion that directly called back to the MedBay xenomorph swarm in Cameron's ALIENS, a showdown in a shopping mall that was undoubtedly birthed due to my numerous viewings of DAWN OF THE DEAD, and a final goodbye between our hero and his love interest that was equal parts DARKMAN and THE ROAD WARRIOR, that (again, naturally) set up a sequel. Nobody will ever read it, and even if you wanted to peruse this embarrassment, I doubt I even have the ancient class assigned laptop that it was birthed on.

I bring this script up because I couldn't help but think about it while watching SOUTHLAND TALES on 35mm last night. It's a movie that bursts with the same sort of youthful exuberance, owning a distinct sense of discovery. Richard Kelly wants you to know that he's read Philip K. Dick ("Flow My Tears") and has a dope record collection ("Wave of Mutilation" is not only needle dropped, but also serves as a chapter heading). He also obviously loves SNL, time travel, pro wrestling, AMERICAN PIE, and is terrified of George W. Bush's post-9/11 reign of invasive terror. For anyone old enough to remember those towers falling (I was in the library of the aforementioned high school, downloading DARK TOWER audio books via Napster*), Kelly's picture captures both the melancholy and dread that invaded the air and dominated any thoughts that popped up into your brain for months after. It seemed like the world was collapsing, and those in power simply viewed the tragedy as an in to enact the most Machiavellian of wars on civil liberties that only Donald Trump has since challenged in terms of sheer bureaucratic evil.

But what SOUTHLAND TALES is also made up of is equal parts embarrassing audacity (not to mention the balls to be embarrassingly audacious). It's a sprawling, pop star riddled, dystopian ode to apocalyptic paranoia that also includes Sean William Scott playing racist twins, Sarah Michelle Gellar as a porn bubblehead, The Rock as a memory wiped action movie star, Mandy Moore as his sex kitten wife (who's also the daughter of Holmes Osbourne's Bush stand-in and Miranda Richardson's odd hybrid of Cruella De Ville/Dick Cheney), and Jon Lovitz as a genuinely evil police thug. To top it off, Justin Timberlake narrates the picture from atop a turret gun before dancing to the Killers' "All These Things That I've Done" in a skee ball alley. If Kathryn Bigelow's STRANGE DAYS were missing roughly half of its reels, it'd still probably make more sense on an A + B = C level and, at the very least, wouldn't have Lou Taylor Pucci playing Emilio Estevez playing Slim Shady (easily the most face slapping turn in a movie that seems to want to one up itself in terms of flace slapping turns).

Still, it's tough to deny SOUTHLAND TALES' chokingly thick miasma of angst, even as Gellar sings about teen horniness not being a crime, and cooing that the "future is far more futuristic than scientists predicted". There's a bizarre emotional truth at its core that's simultaneously juvenile and adult; an often literally hysterical "we're all fucked" guiding mantra that straight up ends in almost identical fashion to both Kelly's DONNIE DARKO and REPO MAN. Yet the highs are so fantastically high that I actually felt a lump forming in my throat during the climactic three-way dance sequence between Gellar, Johnson, and Moore. This is the unadulterated vision of one distinct artist, making his own fear fun for us to experience on some level, while never denying that "this is the way the world ends". That's kind of glorious in its own right.

Back when he was the SVP of acquisitions during Anchor Bay's legendary repertory home video run, Jay Douglas once said to a reporter "sometimes interesting is better than good", and I can't think of a more applicable qualitative summation for SOUTHLAND TALES. By any standard measurement of competent filmmaking, it's undoubtedly a failure (beyond the obvious technical bravura on display). But as a mission statement regarding his own personal approach to an unkind America, it's rapturously unique. For better or worse, Richard Kelly got the chance to make the movie of his dreams, and HE MADE IT, warts and all. I'll take that over whatever canned junk is being sold to us by a studio as "culturally important" eight days a week. [35mm]

*The dude who yelled out "holy shit, someone crashed a plane into the World Trade Center!" was a kid we (not so) lovingly referred to as "Sweetchuck", and was mostly known for masturbating more than any human being I've ever met. He's now a District Attorney in Delaware (I think).