The common trap independent filmmakers fall into comes after their low-budget debut garners them a certain amount of buzz from the media and does well enough financially to attract the attention of the studios. They try to parlay this newfound clout to get a significantly bigger budget in order to realize an ambitious passion project. Sometimes, they pull it off and the result is even more critical and commercial acclaim (see Pulp Fiction). Sometimes, they crash and burn spectacularly (see Mallrats). Richard Kelly’s second film, Southland Tales (2006), falls into the latter category. It’s an epic, sprawling mess of a film – an unholy union between the paranoid science fiction of Philip K. Dick and the paranoid noir that is Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955). Kelly said of his film, “It felt like this window of time in my life where I could do something big and bold and political and get it out of my system before it was too late, before I lost my nerve, or the window of opportunity had disappeared.”
A rough cut of Southland Tales was entered into the 2006 Cannes Film Festival where it received one of the worst receptions in the prestigious festival’s history. Most critics hated it and the film was barely given a theatrical release before it limped out onto home video by an indifferent studio. Most people either didn’t get it or simply didn’t care for Richard Kelly’s playful socio-political satire that took place in a near-future alternate history version of Earth. I’ve always felt that Southland Tales is a flawed masterpiece, ballsy epic that immerses you in its strange futureworld and expects you to be an active participant in the sense that you have to think about what you’re watching. Most people don’t want to work in order to understand a film, but for those that do, Kelly’s film can be a rewarding experience.
World War III begins to 2005 and three years later a German company known as Treer introduces an alternate fuel source called Fluid Karma – a hydroelectric energy field that is basically a wireless network of electric power running machines remotely. Of course, the United States government strikes a deal with the company. Most of this information is conveyed via voiceover narration by Private Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake), a battle-scarred Iraqi War veteran who sets things up for us and introduces the main characters.
There’s Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson), an actor that suffers from amnesia. He has written a screenplay about the end of the world with Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), a porn star turned political activist. She’s trying to go legit with a “topical discussion chat reality show,” and plans to diversify with a pop album, jewelry, clothing and perfume lines as well as an energy drink. Boxer is actually married and his mother-in-law is Nana Mae Frost (Miranda Richardson), deputy director of the NSA. She is looking for him because of what he knows. However, she’s at odds with Baron von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn), the ruthless head of Treer.
Digits for Democracy, a neo-Marxist fringe group that operates off the grid, are in conflict with the government. They are hoping to make the government look foolish during an election year. Officer Roland Taverner (Seann William Scott) is a very confused pawn of Digits for Democracy. He has been tasked to impersonate his twin brother Ronald (also a police officer) for their own terroristic ends. Over the course of the film, these various characters, and a whole slew of supporting ones, interact with each other in major and minor ways to form a complex tapestry of life in Los Angeles.
The first hint that Kelly is going for a satirical vibe is the casting of several Saturday Night Live alumni in significant roles – Nora Dunn, Jon Lovitz, Cheri Oteri, and Amy Poehler – and other comedic actors like Will Sasso and Seann William Scott. This probably didn’t help people take the film seriously. In a risky casting against type that pays off, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Dwayne Johnson, and Seann William Scott are particular stand-outs. It’s not just because they get a lot of screen-time, but that they also make the most of it. Freed from the shackles of pre-conceived notions about them – Gellar with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Johnson as a professional wrestler and action star, and Scott as a comedian – they are given a chance to play radically different characters.
Gellar looks like she’s having a lot of fun playing a not-too smart reformed porn star with aspirations to respectability. Her talk show is a funny jab at programs like The View, but only if it was hosted on the beach with ditzy porn stars. Johnson has always struck me as a smart guy that was more talented then a lot of his film roles would suggest and in Southland Tales he not only gets to showcase his capacity for comedy, but also his willingness to try something different. Sadly, the commercial failure of this film has either scared him off taking more chances like this or discouraged other filmmakers from casting him against type. Known mostly for doing raunchy comedies like the American Pie movies, Scott gets a rare chance to play it straight as he portrays a confused man who provides a pivotal role in the drama that unfolds over the course of the film.
Southland Tales isn’t exactly a character-driven film and so it is easy to dismiss a lot of the performances as stunt casting. Most of the cast hardly has any time to make an impact with what screen-time they have. Let’s fact it, these actors are there to service the story that Kelly is trying to tell. And it is a helluva story – clearly inspired by the events of 9/11 as he comments on things like PATRIOT Act, the war in Iraq, Homeland Security, and domestic terrorism. Cinematically, Kelly’s film seems indebted to Kathryn Bigelow’s New Millennium cyberpunk thriller Strange Days (1995). Like with Bigelow’s film, the climax of Southland Tales is kickstarted by a video-recording of a racially-motivated murder, which throws downtown L.A. into chaos, but where Strange Days opted for a safe, stereotypical ending, Kelly goes gleefully over-the-top with a full-on armed riot in the streets and a dimensional rift in the space-time continuum that visually quotes a great L.A.-based social satire, Repo Man (1984) all orchestrated to a dance number involving Gellar, Johnson and Mandy Moore. And yet, for all of its cinematic influences, Southland Tales is steeped in literary references with Kelly citing the work of Raymond Chandler, Philip K. Dick and Kurt Vonnegut Jr. as influences. The film quotes the work of T.S. Eliot and Robert Frost while also referencing Karl Marx and The New Testament.
Southland Tales is chock full of deliciously satirical imagery, like the SUV television ad that features two vehicles having rather explicit sex, but it’s okay because that version will only air in Europe. There’s Krista Now’s Britney Spears-esque music video for her hit single, “Teenage Horniness Is Not A Crime.” As he demonstrated on several occasions in Donnie Darko (2001), Kelly has a real knack for marrying just the right piece of music with a scene and Southland Tales is no different as he has Boxer escape a double murder scene through a fog-enshrouded suburb to the strains of “Wave of Mutilation” by the Pixies. The showstopper of the film has to be Pilot Abilene’s song and dance routine in an arcade to “All These Things That I’ve Done” by The Killers with “I’ve got soul, but I’m not a soldier” being a key lyric that comments on the character. It is easily the best sequence in the film, really bringing it to life. It not only hints at the greatness that just eludes Kelly’s grasp, but also suggests that he is destined to make a musical.
There’s a lot to absorb in the first 20 minutes as Kelly works hard to set up this world and the characters that inhabit it. Perhaps the problem is that tonally Southland Tales is all over the map, shifting from satire to a serious meditation on the end of the world without warning. Kelly fell into the sophomore trap of making too ambitious a film and not having the filmmaking chops to match, but you have to give him an “A” for effort as there are all kinds of fascinating ideas and themes that he explores. However, because he is trying to tell such a complex narrative involving so many characters, he spends too much time explaining how things work and who everyone is instead of finding some way to show us. The theatrical version of Blade Runner (1982) ran into this problem and it is an issue with a lot of futuristic science fiction films. Filmmakers are afraid of confusing their audience thereby losing them and then relying too much on expositional dialogue or voiceover narration.
So, what is Kelly really trying to say with Southland Tales? He is obviously commenting on the dangers of too much governmental control and extremist fringe groups, but also on the proliferation of technology in our lives. He has created an instant cult film with mainstream actors. It was never going to be something palatable for mainstream consumption because it was just too weird. Southland Tales is a confused Sui generis film that ultimately collapses under its own lofty ambitions, but god bless Kelly for giving it the ol’ college try. It throws so many ideas and images against the wall to see what sticks and that is part of its charm. In the immortal words of Hunter S. Thompson, Kelly has created, “A high-powered mutant of some kind never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, and too rare to die.”
Lim, Dennis. “Booed at Cannes, but Now the Real Test.” The New York Times. October 28, 2007.
Parson, Spencer. “The End of the World As He Knows It.” Austin Chronicle. November 16, 2007.
An excellent Salon.com article that breaks down the plot of the film in detail.
An excellent retrospective article on the film.
An in-depth interview with Richard Kelly where he answers several questions about the film.