When I first saw Donnie Darko way back in 2001, I was, like many other people, pretty blown away by it. It had all the right elements, and appealed to that dark, lonely side my of us have when trying to figure out who we are. So I eagrely awaited Richard Kelly’s Director’s Cut version. Which I bought upon release, watched once, and vowed never to watch again. Kelly had managed to completely suck all that was great out of the theatrical cut of the film. It was dreadful. So I was a little wary when Southland Tales came out. Through a series of unfortunate events, and warnings from friends, I never got to see the film. Until now. I was kind of hoping it’d turn out to be good. When you have certain expectations from a film, sometimes you can be pleasantly, or otherwise... surprised...
It’s July 2008, three years after a number of nuclear attacks on the United States. The US is at war, the draft has been reinstated and most of the country is a police state. A new substance called Fluid Karma has been developed to replace the need for fossil fuels. However, Fluid Karma and it’s application has caused a rift in the space-time continuum that threatens to destroy the world. Meanwhile, an amnesia-stricken actor named Boxer Santaros and his new girlfriend, porn-star Krysta Kapowski have developed a film script that begins to mirror events in Santaros’ real life. And police office Roland Taverner is really a neo-marxist impersonating his own twin brother in order to use Santaros as leverage for the neo-marxist plans to blackmail Santaros’ Republican senator father in law.
Sounds complicated? Yeah, it is. It’s also one of the most pointless, muddled, incoherent and needlessly dull films I’ve ever sat through. It’s mind-numbingly idiotic. If you read about films, you’ll have heard about Southland Tales’ adventure at Cannes. How it was booed, and some even went so far as to say it was probably the worst film ever to compete at the festival. That was before the film was cut by Kelly himself in order to make it less lumbering and more accessible. And THIS is what he was left with?! In some sado-masochistic way, I’d love to see what the original cut was like. Thought I really don’t think I could put myself through this film ever again.
The film attempts to satirise the course that the US was headed down directly after the attack on the World Trade Centre. The increase in security and the clamp-down on liberties of the average citizen. However, Kelly’s ham-fisted attempt at subtlety goes nowhere fast. His vision of the near-future (which is now actually the past) looks nowhere near believable. Visually, it’s pretty close to Paul Verhoven’s future in Starship Troopers, but where as that film’s satire fit in with the aesthetic of the film and was actually funny, Kelly’s vision (especially with the bafflingly dour narration by Justin Timberlake) is a mess of ideas that don’t gell.
The script... good christ, the script is a disaster. Most of the actors clearly don’t have a clue what their characters are babbling on about. The characters themselves are a mish-mash of cliches, and cardboard-cutouts that are neither believable nor edgy, nor funny. Events unfold in a way that either leaves you confused, or without caring an iota about what happens. And then, in the middle of the mess, Justin Timberlake’s Pilot Abilene bursts into a drunken mime of The Killers’ All These Things That I’ve Done, which makes for one of the most infuriatingly ill-judged and pointless scenes of recent cinema history. It’s up there with the emo-strut scene from Spiderman 3.
The actors. To be honest, you’re not going to really give a shit what their performances are like. You’re too busy writhing in agony at the sound of the dialogue to worry about how it’s delivered. I actually felt sorry for Seann William Scott, Dwayne Johnson and Sarah Michelle Gellar. Clearly they saw Kelly as some sort of visionary genius and leapt on board thinking that it didn’t matter if they didn’t understand the script, Kelly knows what he’s doing. Nope. He didn’t. And the performances are ground-breakingly bad. But I really don’t think it’s the actors’ fault. The characters are just so poorly written.
Kelly’s a director who got sweapt up in his own hype. He attempts to out-Lynch David Lynch and instead falls spectacularly flat on his face. His writing is an incoherent mess of biblical proportions and his direction is pedestrian and in no way innovative. At certain points in the film, I wondered if Kelly had ever even seen a film before making Southland Tales. The film didn’t kill his career, but in an age where people like Roland Emmerich, Stephen Sommers and Brett Ratner still have careers, that’s not really all that surprising. I should have listened to the warnings. Don’t make the mistake I did. Southland Tales is unwatchable.
Oh, and there’s a scene in which two cars have sex through their exhausts. I shit you not.