In a way, I pity Richard Kelly. It took half a decade for him to make Southland Tales as a follow-up to his cult classic Donnie Darko. And while I can see some of the visionary imagination that gave us Darko, he’s a complete fish out of water. His satire is entirely misdirected, and the film never gels or even makes sense.
Southland Tales tells an alternate reality of a future where ultra-liberals and ultra-conservatives are at war in mainstream politics and in the grass-roots trenches. An action movie star named Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson) has reappeared, after he’s been missing for months. With his memory wiped and being the benign captive of the Neo-Marxists, Santaros has been given a mission of bringing down the government structure before it implements a devastating energy solution that could destroy the world.
I was told by a friend that to really understand Southland Tales, I’d have to read the graphic novel prelude and watch the movie a second time. I refuse to do this. If this were necessary, the DVD should come packaged with the graphic novels and a post-it note on them that says “READ THIS FIRST.” Don’t insult my intelligence by telling me that to understand a movie I have to dig up these comics at some used book store before I watch a movie.
There’s even a portion of the making-of featurette on the DVD where the actors praise the film because it doesn’t make sense. Jon Lovitz and Curtis Armstrong explain that they loved the script because it confused agents and was hard to understand. Well, I don’t buy it. I don’t buy the fact that a script can be so brilliant that people won’t quite get it. To me, that’s lazy – and ultimately ridiculously egotistic – writing.
I’m a huge fan of quirky science fiction, having attended all-night movie marathons of horror and science-fiction since high school. Southland Tales reminds me of independent, unwatched science fiction attempts that have been made since the 70s that are shown to plug the schedule in the wee hours of the morning.
Sticking up your middle finger at the camera and metaphorically sticking your tongue out like some slutty trust-fund daughter in a homemade porno doesn’t make the film fine art. Characterizing something as slapstick an executing it utterly unlike a slapstick scene does not make it work as physical comedy.
In watching the special features of Southland Tales, Richard Kelly explains in vain to the audience how he was executing brilliant satire on everything from the musical genre to science fiction. But with no understanding of these genres, he ultimately gives us a mess.
I respect Richard Kelly as a director, and I did enjoy Donnie Darko quite a bit. But I get the sense from Southland Tales that he tried so hard to live up to his first memorable film by aiming so high that he had no chance of prevailing.
The design of the film is pretty slick, border-lining on visionary if it wasn’t so haphazard. However, it’s aiming only a few years in the future from when it was produced (and only a couple months from now) that it just doesn’t bridge that credibility gap. It’s like Kelly planned on making a modern version of Brazil but chose to shoot it in a too-close future and weight it down with too much political angst.
Richard Kelly pats himself on the back for skewering ultra liberals (which, to Kelly, are terrorist fringe groups of Neo-Marxists) as much as ultra conservatives (which, to Kelly, is any person in the Republican party, not quite a one-to-one comparison). But this doesn’t hold up in the sense that he paints the world of politics and corporations as straw-men that are all-too-powerful and all-too-easy to villainize. This isn’t an eerie vision of the future. It’s an eerie vision of what Richard Kelly wishes the future would be like so he could be right.
The DVD comes with a ton of trailers, but only two other special features. The 30-minute making-of featurette is informative enough, but it does gush too much over Kelly and give him a platform to preach and explain why at least he thinks his film is so awesome. There’s also a rather preachy and poorly animated short This is the Way the World Ends, which serves as a stinger to the film.
The Upside: Now that he’s made this movie, Richard Kelly is free to take on something else without having to feel he must prove himself.
The Downside: There’s a great story in there somewhere, but it gets lost.
On the Side: This movie was originally finished for the festivals in 2006, so the 2008 storyline wasn’t so jarring in that perspective.