I’ve just finished watching Southland Tales, the second feature film from writer / director Richard Kelly. His first, Donnie Darko, is one of my favourite films from the past ten years and — despite Kelly’s protestations that it’s basically a straight piece of science-fiction — I see Donnie Darko as one of cinema’s better portrayals of schizophrenia.
Southland Tales, on the other hand, is indeed — fairly unambiguously — a science-fiction flick, albeit one which is a damn sight more psychedelic than most. Thematically, it draws heavily on Kathryn Bigelow and James Cameron’s millennial thriller, Strange Days, as well as the little known, and rather under-rated, Wild Palms (a TV mini-series from the early 90s that still inhabits my dreams to this day, and which has forever coloured the 60s rock classic, House of The Rising Sun… a song that’s never been the same for me since soundtracking Brad Dourif’s death in Wild Palms). While structurally, Southland Tales is an ensemble piece that owes a great deal to Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (released, incidentally, the same year as Wild Palms).
The first thing to say about Southland Tales is that it’s a mess. The second thing to say is that it’s a glorious mess. A beautiful, fascinating, utterly trippy mess. Unlike Donnie Darko, which combined a wonderful visual style with some compelling and engaging characters, Southland Tales is all about the style. Which is not to suggest that it’s a case of style over substance. The substance of the film — the ideas — make for a fascinating couple of hours, but there’s no emotional engagement with the characters (though, of course, it’s difficult for me to engage with Sarah Michelle Gellar as anyone other than Buffy… one of my all-time screen heroines).
And that isn’t a complaint about the acting per se; there’s just no emotional depth to the characters they are portraying. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson does as good a job as any actor could have with his character(s). As indeed do all of the others, though it’s only Seann William Scott and — oddly enough — Justin Timberlake who are called upon to provide any kind of emotional content; which they do competently enough.
The film opens in contemporary America. We see home-movie footage of an Independence Day celebration in Texas culminating in a shot of a mushroom cloud on the horizon. It then jumps forward a handful of years. We learn that terrorists detonated two nuclear bombs in Texas that day. As a result, the entire Middle East is a war-zone and the United States has descended into near chaos; with a brutal, repressive totalitarian government barely managing to stave off outright revolution. Police sniper towers dot the city (the film is set entirely in Los Angeles) and people are gunned down with impunity if there’s even a suspicion that they might be engaged in criminal activity. We also discover that the war in the Middle East has all but dried up the supply of oil from the region and America is close to collapse.
Now, if you ask me, that there is the guts of a great film and one which Richard Kelly — based on the talent shown in Donnie Darko — could have turned into a masterpiece. But to that is added yet another thick layer of ideas… in the desperate search for an alternative energy source, America has turned to a revolutionary new technology which exploits “quantum entanglement” in the ocean currents to produce limitless electricity which can be transmitted wirelessly to any location in America. This technology, however, is having unpredictable environmental effects.
So Southland Tales tries to address both The War Against Terror and a kind of accelerated Climate Change scenario. But that’s not enough. There’s yet another strand to the plot involving a strange new drug; Fluid Karma; which comes in several flavours providing a range of different mystical experiences. And on top of that, there’s rifts in space-time, time-travel paradoxes, messianic metaphors and a meta-narrative (involving one of the characters writing a screenplay that begins to mirror the plot of the film itself).
As I say; it’s a mess. But it’s a spectacular mess. Southland Tales is as far from the mundane mainstream as you’re likely to get and I salute Kelly for that much at least. It is — as mentioned previously — a very psychedelic film in places. Had it been released in the early 90s during my heavy-duty acid days, it would have utterly delighted me. Like Wild Palms, it would — I warrant — still linger in my dreams. With a clear head, however, it’s a rather unsatisfactory film overall. It never quite descends into sheer silliness, but it comes far too close for comfort and the Repo Man-esque allusions close to the end merely serve to damage Southland Tales by comparison. Whereas Alex Cox’s classic took a single concept and created a mythology with it, Kelly’s film takes a dozen concepts — each perfectly fine on its own — and fails to adequately explore any of them.
Overall though, Southland Tales is definitely worth a watch if you’re at all interested in non-mainstream cinema. It’s funny in places, always lovely to look at, and occasionally very very good indeed. The use of music — as with Donnie Darko — is quite wonderful. A track by The Killers (which I don’t actually think is a great song) becomes a bizarre hallucinogenic trip experienced by Justin Timberlake’s wounded and psychotic war veteran, while a line from Jane’s Addiction’s Three Days is turned into a kind of prophetic, mystical mantra.
Whatever you do, don’t watch this film expecting anything close to the quality of Donnie Darko. But don’t miss it either. As a piece of odd psychedelia it’s up there with The Monkee’s Head. As a feature film, it’s a complete mess.