Jay Sherman’s review published on Letterboxd:
Donnie Darko is the movie that changed my life. It made me want to become a filmmaker, it made me look at the world in a whole new way, and it got me into thinking differently. If I hadn't seen it that rainy day when I was 11 years old, I don't think I would be into movies as much as I am now. This review wouldn't exist.
But what happened to the director of that film? After making what some call his accidental masterpiece it took him five (or even six) years to come out with another film. Donnie Darko quickly gained a huge cult following and people were hoping for a lot when it was announced that Richard Kelly had a new film in the works, called Southland Tales. After its premiere at Cannes Film Festival, critics bashed the movie. And it just got worse. It took almost two years for it to receive a distribution. And with an all star cast, it made less than half a million dollars at the box office due to a very limited release. Southland Tales is one of the biggest failures in the history of Hollywood.
How does one describe it? On paper, it looks like a standard action flick with some famous faces in it. But it is in fact the strangest film of the 21st century. No one can describe the plot. After I watched it, it felt like I had just seen four different films at the same time. Each with their own plot. And to have such a mainstream cast in a movie like that just feels weird. But looking deeper into it, Kelly intended something big with it.
Southland Tales takes place during a few days before the independence day in Los Angeles, near the end of the world and close to a new presidential election. A cop (of some sort), an action star and a porn star crosses paths together with a soldier, a top secret agent and many, many more characters. A script written by the action star is about to get produced, a few gangsters tries to rig the election, an ex soldier has weird hallucinations (who was previously a musician or something), something new that is going to save the world has just been invented, a corrupt cop kills people for fun (I guess). There are just too many different plots in the film. You'll be able to understand two of them if you're lucky.
The structure and style of Southland Tales is as far away from Donnie Darko as possible. The story is told like some sort of action comedy at times, other times as a serious science fiction film. The main focus of the film is on how the media affects the people, and how celebrities are involved with politics. We see bunch of random commercials, news reports and just random stuff from televisions all while the multiple stories are being told. And now I'm going to do a short spoiler free analysis that you can read and think about while you watch Southland Tales.
Let's take a closer look at the all star cast. None of them are really actors, or at least good actors. We got The Rock (Dwayne Johnson), Justin Timberlake (in one of his first major roles), Seann William Scott (who I would consider a comedian), Amy Poehler, Kevin Smith, Sarah Michelle Gellar and many more. They feel terribly miscast. But I think that is Richard Kelly's point.
He is a smart and wise director. It is beyond me how he would choose to work with these "actors". But Southland Tales wants the audience to understand how celebrities get involved in things they don't understand (in this case politics). A porn star doesn't belong in the white house, and we know that. Back to the movie itself, the whole cast belongs somewhere else. And everyday we see people doing things they clearly shouldn't. This could be something as simple as your son wanting to invest in the stock market when he doesn't know math, or the fact that Justin Bieber makes music (I'm not a Justin Bieber hater don't worry).
And this all brings us a step further to analyzing every detail of Southland Tales. There's too many of them. Every single scene has so much detail, more than you could ever have imagined. But it's Richard Kelly, everything means something. Despite being one of my top 10 favorite movies since my first watch, it took me five viewings to fully understand Donnie Darko. Still, it has a runtime of 106 minutes. The shortest cut of Southland Tales (that I'm reviewing) is 146 minutes long.
The original cut ran over three hours and was the one that was bashed in Cannes. But I think thirty minutes more is the time Richard Kelly needs to explain his very strange universe. It is said that the three hour cut makes a lot more sense. I have no idea what was going on inside the director's mind. This is unimaginable. Every single detail of Southland Tales is.
But it all makes sense when you look deeper into it. Can I explain the plot? I don't think so. The last thirty minutes will leave you with extreme confusion as to what happened. It took me a long time to understand what the ending meant. Anyone who enjoys experimental films has to watch Southland Tales. Listening to the soundtrack afterwards, I can't stop loving it. It is by no doubt the strangest second feature from a director ever made.
I will have to re-watch The Box tonight to see if it is filled with as much details. Richard Kelly was definitely too ambitious about this project, but in a very good way. Southland Tales is possibly a masterpiece.