Richard Kelly’s career ends, not with a whimper, but with a bang.
Several years ago, Richard Kelly wrote and directed the cult classic Donnie Darko. This was a film with large ideas, but kept them distinctly in the background to texture a nihilistic coming of age head-fuck that lives in my heart like a bizarre love-child of Fight Club and Garden State. After that he followed it up with the Kiera Knightley vehicle Domino, but he didn’t direct that so maybe its awfulness wasn’t his fault.
Confirmation that Donnie Darko may have been an accident comes with his latest magnum-opus, Southland Tales, a film that sees a quality dive that I only thought the Wachowski Brothers capable of.
Southland Tales is a stunted satire on all things American and the war on terror/ the interplay with it against civil liberties. The events of the movie unfold after a nuclear attack in Texas, the Patriot Act comes in and forces through all kinds of abuse of human rights and surveillance measures, effectively creating a police state. Not that this is ever really used after the first bit, but it’s a nice setting, I’ll give it that.
The film actually follows the exploits of action film star Boxer Santaros (The Rock), who’s got amnesia and starts to believe he’s a character in a film that he’s written called the Power, with pornstar Krista Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar) who’s taken a new political stance despite seemingly knowing about the same amount as Kelly himself. At the same time, a Neo Marxist group are trying to overthrow an election using severed thumbs and the dual identity of LA cop and his identical twin brother, Ronald and Roland (both played by Seann William Scott). At the same time, there’s another group of Neo Marxists trying to blackmail a senator with images of Boxer Santaros and Krysta Now, when Santaros is married to the senators daughter. At the same time, Senator Frost and his wife are setting up the US Ident protocol of monitoring people after the Patriot Act (probably the only worthy piece of satire in the film, but is never really explored). At the same time, a scientist has found a new fuel source that could save the world from war, but will actually stop it spinning and cause everyone to kill each other, just like Santaros predicted in his screenplay. At the same time Iraq veteran Pilot Abeline (Justin Timberlake) seems to have found a hell of a lot of fun with a swivel chair and mumbling about the story in an overdubbed narration. Frankly his name might as well have been Captain Exposition.
Originally, I gave up watching at the 55 minute mark, as it felt to me like I’d spent the two and a half hour run time already. If I can say one good thing about this film, is that it can actually slow time to a grinding, painful crawl, and how many things marketed as entertainment can do that? I went back due to journalistic integrity, but also just to see what other bizarre misnomers would be made in the film. There were many, including a sequence where Roland/Ronald realises he’s the chosen one because he hasn’t taken a shit in a week (seriously) and the line “I’m a pimp, and pimps don’t commit suicide.”
The thing is though; Southland Tales is much like its amnesiac protagonist Santaros in that it doesn’t have a sense of identity. There’s elements taken from movies like Brazil and Adaptation, but it just doesn’t have the same focus nor execution that they had. It’s a stab at consumerism with a stupidly high budget. It’s got highbrow pretensions, but has Justin Timberlake as the narrator. It’s literally the messiest film I’ve ever seen. Apparently this is Richard Kelly making a stand against the Hollywood system of only giving money to people with the same few ideas. To do that, after being given a big budget, he manages to provide an incentive for the status quo in Hollywood to remain the same.
All of this is a shame, because despite the horrendously negative tone of this review, there were good things in there. That could just be because I’ve given its bloated corpse such a kicking, its released fumes that have caused me to hallucinate, but still there were good things in there. Seann William Scott proved he could act, and, despite my mockery, Timberlake’s voice works well as a narrator . There were also some genuinely impressive moments of direction, including a time lagged reflection and a news sequence as that recalled the wonderful Brass Eye. The concept behind the film is one that given focus could have turned out to be something actually great (world falling apart, forcing itself into fascism, leads to the rapture). The time travel elements were well handled, and some of the film was quite pretty to look at. In fact, I’m probably only spouting this much vitriol because it feels like such a wasted opportunity.
Then again, none of these positives matter so much when the overall feel of the movie is this self indulgent. Why, for example do we have to follow two Neo Marxist sects? Why do we have to have extended sequences of Krysta Now’s TV show? In fact, why is she even in the film? Why are a third of the characters dressed like they’re from The Tribe, another third like modern models and the others like some god-awful 70s sci fi movie? Why is half of the story in a graphic novel you have to find independently? Why are half of the characters on roller skates? Why is there a flying ice cream truck? Why is there a character that follows Santaros around for half the film, only to be killed off before they can actually have a purpose in the story? Why? Why? Why?
So despite not liking Southland Tales, I could go on for hours about this film which, to its credit, is something I couldn’t do with a lot of movies, but I want to end the review here. It could’ve been great and there was an incredible amount of potential, but in its own words it “took the road less travelled” to tell its story. Sadly it wasn’t so much a road but more a jump off point to becoming a free-form mess on the rocks below. I wouldn’t recommend it, unless you want to get a true understanding of the problems that a world-wide script editor shortage could lead to.