Southland Tales ★★★★

What kind of film is “Southland Tales”? Richard Kelly’s sophomore effort was his followup to the enormous cult hit that was “Donnie Darko.” That film, which launched the careers of both Gyllenhall siblings, turned Kelly into the next big thing and left everyone curious about the film he’d make next.

When “Southland Tales” premiered at Cannes, it was received with some of the worst headlines to come out of the festival. That was 2006, and the world is a very different place now.

The film shows some vision of a not-too-distant future America, though specifically Venice Beach , Los Angeles, where an ensemble of veterans, low lifes, porn stars and celebrities scheme in a country run rampant with police brutality, inexhaustible energy, and totalitarianism.

Boxer-turned-actor Santaros (Johnson) cheats on his wealthy legacy-family wife (Moore) with porn star and co-author of his screenplay (Gellar). His mother-in-law (Richardson) runs a nationwide surveillance network, while his senator father-in-law (Osborne) runs for president and courts German energy magnate Baron Von Westphalen (Shawn). Meanwhile, the PTSD riddled Taverner Twins, Ronald and Roland (Scott), are kidnapped by underground rebels led by Veronica (Poehler) and Zora (Oteri). Unbeknownst to them, the Twins are keys to a conspiracy that could rip a hole through the fabric of time and space. The film is this and more, under the watchful eye of our narrator, Private Pilot Abilene (Timberlake).

The film is flawed. Severely. Endless exposition dumped over media screens play like painful bandaids that cover up plot threads that were exercised from the film. It’s as if someone tried to reign in this insane film and deliver some resemblance of a coherent plot. Before anyone decries this edit in an effort to defend the integrity of Kelly’s vision, it should be noted that whoever decided to control this film’s wildly erratic plot made it manageable in choosing to do so. There are rumours of a director’s cut coming soon. The mind boggles.

Despite its obvious shortcomings, “Southland Tales” thrives, mostly because of how accurate the film depicts life after 2006, and because of Kelly’s fealty to his own idiosyncratic direction.

“Southland Tales” is SO 2006. A soundtrack full of songs by The Killers and Moby. The film’s politics reek of Bush’s War in Iraq. The fashion, the celebrities, all feel of the era. Yet at the same time, many of its mad absurdities have astonishingly come true. There a lot of Kardashian in Krysta Now, or Stormy Daniels, mixing politics and porn stars. There’s a lot of Elon Musk in Von Westphalen, presenting himself as the technological saviour of humanity with a gross underside we’re forbidden to see. Most chilling is the film’s prediction of the rise in our cultural awareness of the systemic racism within policing. There’s a lot of how we view law enforcement now in the character of Bart Bookman (Lovitz). The insanity of the world we live in goes beyond what “Southland Tales” depicts, but it seems like the film closest to hitting the target.

When the film succeeds, it’s the stuff of wonder. Kelly’s unafraid to infuse the genres of music video and interpretive dance into the narrative. By doing so, he delivers moments that burn into memory. What does Justin Timberlake’s lipsync version of “All These Things That I’ve Done” have to do with the wormhole ripping abilities of war vets? How does the dance to “Memory Gospel” between Santaros and the two women who love him render him a Christ-like figure to save us all, right before the end? Infusing these genres into his storytelling, Kelly elevates their plots and their resolutions into the abstract. 

So much happens in “Southland Tales,” I’ve only begun to scratch the surface. It will frustrate many as an example of an overly ambitious sophomore effort. A talented filmmaker breaks out with a big surprise hit of a debut, and for his next film he’s given the keys to the kingdom.

But time has proven us wrong to condemn this film so entirely. It has its own life, emerging from under the shadow of “Donnie Darko.” Kelly hasn’t had that much of a cinematic output since its release, and that’s a shame. He’s a filmmaker with a singular voice, who plays by his own rules, and while this may not have been a masterpiece, given another chance, he’ll make one.

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