Review by Victoria Large
Posted on 15 November 2007
Source Samuel Goldwyn Films 35mm print
Director Richard Kelly’s new film Southland Tales is very much burdened by weighty expectations. Kelly’s 2001 feature debut Donnie Darko has rather quickly assumed the status of a cult classic, its potent mix of teen angst, twisted humor, semi-comprehensible science fiction, and eighties nostalgia proving a tough one for the DVD generation to resist. Finding that kind of success so early is certainly a mixed blessing for any filmmaker, and somewhere in his heart Kelly is likely ruing the possibility that after his ballyhooed first film, Southland Tales may end up being written off with two words: sophomore slump. In fact it already has been in some circles, following a disastrous premiere screening at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival.
But writing Southland Tales off would be too easy. So would defensively disregarding the film’s faults in an attempt to salvage it as a kind of misunderstood masterpiece, the way that some critics inevitably do once a work has been sufficiently savaged by a majority of pundits. The truth about Southland Tales lies – as it often does with messy films like this one – somewhere between these two extremes.
Returning with a considerably larger budget and an enormous, eclectic cast, Kelly revisits the End-of-Days motif of Donnie Darko with his follow-up. It’s fair to say that doomsday feels a lot closer now than when Donnie Darko first hit the festival circuit nearly seven years ago, when the World Trade Center towers were still standing and color-coded terror alerts weren’t being reported on the daily news, and Southland Tales is nothing if not blatant about the topical thrust of its apocalyptic bent. The film takes place in 2008 and opens with some ponderous narration provided by Justin Timberlake as Pilot Abilene, a scarred Iraq war veteran who explains that there have been nuclear attacks on Texas, and World War III has finally been unleashed. Timberlake’s expository narration goes on at squirm-inducing length, and made me reflect a bit ironically on one of Kelly’s retrospective comments about Donnie Darko: that next time, he’d work on making a film that didn’t require Cliff’s Notes. As it is, Southland Tales remains fairly muddled, even with the wealth of explanation Pilot Abilene provides.
There’s Dwayne Johnson playing Boxer Santaros, a famous action star with ties to the Republican party (not unlike, well, Dwayne Johnson), who, upon waking up in the desert with amnesia, becomes a pawn in the election-year games of various political interests. There’s Wallace Shawn, mostly channeling Vizzini from The Princess Bride in essaying the role of the Baron Von Westphalen, a preening purveyor of alternative fuel. There’s Bai Ling trapped in the same femme fatale window-dressing role that she played over a decade ago in The Crow, Cheri Oteri and Amy Poehler as members of the underground Neo-Marxist resistance, Sarah Michelle Gellar as enterprising adult film star Krysta Now, and Highlander Christopher Lambert in an ice cream truck. There’s a lot going on all the time, but what is lacking, and what was is so indispensable to Donnie Darko, is a single character whose skin we really get under, a genuine emotional tie. Jake Gyllenhaal gives us a believably troubled, thoughtful character in Donnie’s title character, but no one in Southland Tales gets that same chance. (The wealth of familiar faces in the cast does grow distracting as well: I left the theater worrying over the seemingly growing inevitably of the Eli Roth cameo as much as I was worrying over the apocalypse.)
But Southland Tales does have its saving graces, particularly in its sense of humor, which hits more consistently than it misses. (Johnson’s Boxer Santaros, in fact, proves quite funny.) At its best, the film seems to revel in the very absurdity of Biblical prophecy being carried out in modern America. The Pixies join the Book of Revelation and T.S. Eliot in proclaiming the apocalypse: we’re promised a wave of mutilation, and we get one. Indeed, Kelly’s film is so chockablock with references that one wonders if he isn’t trying to emulate the disorienting mix of high and low culture and concepts in Eliot’s seminal modernist text, The Waste Land, which is invoked via the film’s title. Eliot provided footnotes to nonexistent works in The Waste Land, and Southland Tales has more than its share of trails to nowhere. What better way to capture the current cultural climate in America than with an utterly confusing mess?
Not that that excuses the film, exactly. Like Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe, Southland Tales has moments that almost sting with missed potential. Across the Universe gave us a Vietnam vet singing “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” a number that hints at the pointed commentary the film might have made, if those points weren’t lost in a fairly shallow love story and the conclusion that love is all you need. Similarly, Southland Tales gives us the bloodied Pilot Abilene mouthing The Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done,” adding a new edge to the pop song’s lyrics but only just; who is this Pilot Abilene anyway? The audience’s reaction at the screening I attended was as dotted with question marks as this review has become, as Kelly’s film itself surely is.
The film’s finale, which features a lift or two from Donnie Darko and another from Alex Cox’s grungy L.A. flick Repo Man, lead me to wonder once again if Kelly wasn’t jerking our chain just a little, if not out of deference to T.S. Eliot, than perhaps as a reaction to his own considerable hype. Southland Tales calls back to Donnie Darko’s loopy time travel plotline, its questions about destiny and alternate realities, but it’s all a bit more convoluted this time, and sillier to boot. And maybe that’s the point. Maybe Kelly is taking a swipe at himself by giving us just what we expect. Others might argue the opposite: that Southland Tales is the result of Kelly becoming a victim of his own hype instead, and for all I know that could be the case. But I find the former theory more comforting.