Director: Richard Kelly
Screenplay: Richard Kelly
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Seann William Scott, Wallace Shawn, Nora Dunn, Beth Grant, Justin Timberlake, Christopher Lambert, John Larroquette, Bai Ling, Jon Lovitz, Mandy Moore, Holmes Osborne, Miranda Richardson, Wood Harris, Amy Poehler, Zelda Rubinstein, Will Sasso, Kevin Smith
Country: USA, France, Germany
Running Time: 145 mins (theatrical cut) 160 mins (Cannes cut)
BBFC Certificate: 15
Richard Kelly first started writing Southland Tales whilst trying to sell his Donnie Darko script, which wasn’t going well. Southland Tales was more of a madcap satire caper akin to It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World at this time. Once Donnie Darko got greenlit though, the other project got shelved.
When Donnie Darko was finished in 2001, it got poorly received at Sundance and, just before it was commercially released in the US, 9-11 happened. With the film having apocalyptic undertones and featuring a plane crash (or at least an engine falling from the sky), the public were not interested in it at the time.
However, the events of September 11th 2001 and, more importantly, the way the public and government reacted to it led Kelly to resurrect and rethink his Southland Tales script. Over the next couple of years, as respect for Donnie Darko grew and its reputation changed from a bomb to a cult classic in the making, doing good business on DVD & VHS, it gave Kelly the clout to get funding for this next project.
Southland Tales was relatively low budget though, given the scale and ambition of the film. Its story is difficult to summarise but, basically, it’s set in L.A. in an alternate future where twin nuclear attacks in Texas in 2005 have triggered national hysteria. Key events include the country re-introducing the draft and going to war with Iraq, and a new government agency called US-IDent being formed to severely ramp up surveillance on U.S. citizens. This agency, run by Nana Mae Frost (Miranda Richardson), goes as far as to censor the internet and makes fingerprints required for accessing almost everything.
Also making a global impact is a new technological innovation. The war in the Middle East has caused a fuel shortage but German inventor Baron von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn) has created something called ‘Fluid Karma’, which uses the ocean currents to create inexhaustible energy.
The U.S. is also in the middle of an election race between Clinton/Lieberman and Elliot/Frost. It’s due to be a very close call, with California being the most important swing state. So, senator Bobby Frost (Holmes Osborne) is in the state to gain votes, working with the Baron during the much-publicised launch of the main Fluid Karma station off the coast of L.A.
However, there’s a fly in the ointment in the shape of movie star Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson). He’s married to Madeline Frost-Santaros (Mandy Moore), part of the influential Republican Frost family mentioned previously, and has gone missing after a kidnapping. He is, in fact, back in California, but has amnesia. Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), an ex-porn star, has taken him in but not told him the truth about his identity, convincing him that they have both written a script called The Power. She plans to use him as leverage to get money to fund her expansive rebranding campaign.
Meanwhile, trying to sabotage the elections are the Neo-Marxists, who operate out of Venice Beach, California. They’re attempting to set up Santaros, planning to videotape him witnessing a fake double-murder committed by Officer Ronald Taverner (Seann William Scott), who’s actually pretending to be his identical twin brother Roland and is also suffering from amnesia.
Watching over all of this is the mysterious Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake), an Iraqi War veteran who was scarred by a friendly-fire incident and watches from his gun turret on Santa Monica Pier as chaos reigns around him. He injects Fluid Karma like a drug and narrates the film.
Like Donnie Darko, Southland Tales bombed on release, only this time even more spectacularly. The film had an estimated budget of $17,000,000 but only made $374,743 worldwide. Quite an achievement considering the number of big up-and-coming stars in it (Johnson wasn’t quite as big as he is now, but he was getting there).
On the special features of Arrow Video’s 2-disc Limited Edition Blu-ray release of Southland Tales, the makers blame the writers’ strike for preventing them from promoting the film on TV in the usual ways. However, I’d argue the overwhelmingly complex story had more to do with it. Not only does Kelly cram an awful lot of plot into his two-and-a-half hour film, but he wrote six graphic novels to operate as prequels to it. It’s quite an ask to expect the vast majority of audience members to have swotted up on that amount of material before catching the film at the cinema.
Critics weren’t kind on the film either, with it getting largely negative or, at most, lukewarm reviews. Like Donnie Darko, however, the film had its followers and a small but rabid fanbase have kept the film alive, even if it never enjoyed the home video success of its predecessor. Arrow are hoping enough people are coming around to it though, as they’re releasing this substantial Blu-ray package into the world. Having missed the film on its original release, I figured I should give it a shot, so requested a screener.
After finally seeing the film, I must admit I side with the critics. I admire Kelly’s ambition and I always welcome originality in American cinema. However, I do feel he bit off far more than he or anyone could chew. Not only is there an awful lot going on in the film in terms of plot, it feels like Kelly is trying to say too much about the state of America. He takes aim at big business, government surveillance, Republicans, liberals, the war in Iraq, showbiz culture, the internet etc. You name it, he’s criticising it. You could argue most of this links in with the aftershocks of 9-11, but I do feel a smaller target would have delivered a greater impact.
I’m quite partial to a throw-in-everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach when a film is wacky and fun but here I just found it all tiresome. There wasn’t enough of an anchor to keep you interested. The whole thing smacks of a young twenty-something at a party who’s angry at the world but is too drunk or high to know how to articulate his feelings or keep his rant focussed.
The same goes for the film’s dramatic impact. With such a vast cast of characters and collection of narrative threads that often only vaguely-intertwine, it’s difficult to fully invest in what you’re watching and care about the fate of our protagonists. The principal cast do their best to aid this, with Johnson, Scott and Gellar providing some empathy whilst most of the rest of the cast either ham it up for laughs (Shawn in particular) or don’t seem to know what they’ve signed up for.
It’s a wonderful cast though, I’ll give it that. On top of the big names holding up the story, there’s a raft of great character actors and cult stars playing on the sidelines. As well as the aforementioned Shawn, you’ve got Nora Dunn, Christopher Lambert, Jon Lovitz, Miranda Richardson, Amy Poehler, Zelda Rubinstein, Will Sasso and even Kevin Smith, to name but a few.
Tonally it’s unsure of itself too though. It seems to want to be a lowbrow comedy as well as a satire, but then can equally be grimly doom-laden. Neither the funny or serious sides deliver though with laugh-free humour and an apocalyptic finale that only makes you glad the film has ended. It reminded me of Miracle Mile in places, but that’s a far better film, that more effectively balanced similar divergent tones and kept its focus small and heart in the right place. There are hints of Repo Man too but it doesn’t have the anarchic punk energy of that film or its quotable dialogue.
Kelly calls the film “unfinished”, claiming he never managed to shoot everything he wanted and never managed to refine the perfect cut either. Two versions are included here. One is an extended 160-minute cut made for the film’s premiere at Cannes. Kelly says this version was rushed to meet the festival deadline, so isn’t as he intended. However, the other version, the theatrical cut, wasn’t just a case of him polishing it up for release. He was pressured by his distributors to cut the length down. So he’s not entirely happy with either version and keeps mentioning he’d love to have another stab at it.
Personally, with such an overflow of ideas in Southland Tales, I think it would have worked much better as a TV series. Though I wasn’t a fan of the film, given more room to breathe, Kelly’s concept might have been really impressive. Also, Kelly says he was influenced by sci-fi writers Philip K Dick and Kurt Vonnegut. I can see that and love those authors, so perhaps his story would have worked better as a novel, rather than a condensed film.
All-in-all then, Southland Tales feels like something that might have worked in a different form, but ultimately plays out like a long trainwreck. There’s fun to be had in moments and some of the ideas are interesting, but for the most part it just doesn’t gel. The tone is all over the place and there are too many superfluous threads and characters, leaving little to latch on to and hold your interest. The three leads try their best but it’s not enough to save this sinking ship.
Southland Tales is out on 25th January on Blu-ray in a 2-disc Limited Edition set, released by Arrow Video. The picture quality is first-rate, with a sharp but natural look. Audio is impressive too.
2-DISC LIMITED EDITION CONTENTS
– New 2K restoration by Arrow Films, approved by director Richard Kelly and director of photography Steven Poster
– High Definition Blu-ray™ (1080p) presentations of both versions of the film: the 145-minute theatrical cut and the 160-minute “Cannes cut”, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2006
– Original lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and PCM 2.0 stereo soundtracks
– Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
– Audio commentary on the theatrical cut by Richard Kelly
– It’s a Madcap World: The Making of an Unfinished Film, a new in-depth retrospective documentary on the film, featuring contributions by Richard Kelly and members of the original crew
– USIDent TV: Surveilling the Southland, an archival featurette on the making of the film, featuring interviews with the cast and crew
– This is the Way the World Ends, an archival animated short set in the Southland Tales universe
– Theatrical trailer
– Image gallery
– Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Jacey
– Limited edition collector’s booklet featuring new writing by Peter Tonguette and Simon Ward
The commentary explains the story as it goes along in great detail, which is useful for fully unpacking the dense and complicated film. However, there’s very little mention of how it was made or the negative reactions to its release.
Thankfully, the archival doc provides plenty of behind the scenes footage and talking heads, taking us through the production process.
The new 3-part documentary then extends this and provides thoughts after the fact, describing the makers’ sadness when it flopped and was panned. It’s a fairly thorough piece that I enjoyed watching.
I didn’t get a copy of the booklet to look at, unfortunately.
So, although I wasn’t a fan of the film, the package as a whole is impressive, with some interesting extra features that allow you to hear what Kelly’s intentions were behind the film and really untangle its complex plot and ideas.