To paraphrase Stephen Colbert: Is Southland Tales a great disaster or the greatest disaster?
While Southland Tales won’t end a studio, as Heaven’s Gate did, it’s also a much, much worse movie than that legendary failure. Southland Tales is like Heaven’s Gate, though, in that it seems to be a product of unrestrained hubris, a film where no one ever thought to just tell the director ‘No.’ In this case Richard Kelly was allowed to run wild with a script that couldn’t have made a lick of sense to anyone who read it, and even after getting what must have been a humbling negative reaction at Cannes, was allowed to put out a movie that at two hours and twenty minutes plays out as nothing less than nonsense.
Someone asked me what Southland Tales was about, and I honestly replied ‘I don’t know.’ The film is a series of events presented in a more or less linear fashion, but the meaning of many of these events – and I mean the literal meaning, not the thematic or subtextual meaning – is never made clear. I could tell you what happens in the film, but I don’t know that a series of events necessarily make up a narrative. And I’m not a guy who is going to get all flustered at something more avant garde; I’m Not There is a movie that hides any narrative it might have under a thick level of obtuseness, and I loved the film. The problem is that Southland Tales isn’t an avant garde film. Kelly thinks he’s making a mind bender in the vein of Philip K Dick, but he lacks anything approaching Dick’s vision or imagination.
It was the release of the Donnie Darko director’s cut that made me get off the Richard Kelly train. The new version showed that Kelly just didn’t get what it was that we had liked about his debut feature; by adding in explanations for all the time travel weirdness he robbed us of the joy of the central mystery, something that could be teased over and argued about while not making the whole film incomprehensible. Southland Tales is the opposite of the Donnie Darko director’s cut, in that he’s gone completely incomprehensible. Once again, Kelly doesn’t get what we liked about his first movie.
And make no mistake, he’s riffing on similar ideas in Southland as he was in Donnie Darko. There are time anomalies, an impending doomsday, time tunnels, characters getting shot in the eye as prelude to getting wise. It feels like Kelly wants us to run home from Southland Tales and pop Donnie Darko in our DVD players to further explore the Kellyverse; it’s not a sequel, but they’re related. There’s a shared mythology or belief system. But it doesn’t work, and so we’re left with vague metaphysical mumbo jumbo about identical souls in the same time and destinies and so on. But this is mostly at the end of the film; for the first two hours, Southland Tales plays as a high school sophomore’s politically motivated dystopian tale in the high school literary magazine.
I hate the Bush administration as much as, if not more than, the next guy. But these folks are satire-proof in that they’ve already gone beyond normal evil into sheer cartoonish evil and bufoonery. When Kelly has Texas get nuked as a prelude to and excuse for a privacy destroying national initiative, he’s gilding the turd we’re already living with. Watching this it struck me as plain bizarre that Kelly felt the need to explain why the nation in his film is in the condition it’s in; everything is just a slightly magnified, absurdified version of the world around us. Surely any marginally intelligent viewer would understand that this is taking place some time ‘Next Week,’ that it’s our world taken to the next step? But even beyond the goofy over-explanation of the state of the world, Kelly’s satire – painting these security first types as venal and power hungry to the extreme – is thudding. There’s no wit here.
There’s not much wit in the film at all. Tonally, Southland Tales is all over the place. Is it a mopey doomsday film, a trippy head spinner, a raging political polemic or an absurdist comedy? It tries to be all of these, and the one thing they have in common is that none of them work. It isn’t like Southland Tales is a deranged apocalyptic fantasy getting weighed down by comic missteps – everything is a misstep. And beyond none of these varied tones working, none of them mesh. The film is constantly grinding gears, upping the ante on irritation.
It’s hard to pick out who comes off worst in Southland Tales. Sarah Michelle Gellar is terrible in her role as a porn star who wants to make an empire for herself, but it’s been obvious for a couple of years that Gellar was no great talent after all. The same goes for Seann William Scott, playing twin brothers (or are they? Weeeeird); whatever promise this guy once had has long since been pissed away. I am an evangelizer of the gospel of Justin Timberlake, and while he is truly grotesque in a role that embodies everything that is wrong with this film (he’s a movie star turned Iraq War vet who was accidentally fragged by his own men and who is now addicted to a super drug that is tied in to one of the film’s vague central scifi conceits and who has a dream where he breaks into song and he also narrates and then at the end he shoots somebody), I feel like he’s got a long film career ahead of him. The Rock, on the other hand, is at a career crossroads, and to see him hopelessly mugging his way through this film like a blind man groping for a wall is disheartening. Kelly also meticulously miscast the film, so that people like Jon Lovitz – playing a murderous LA cop – never had a fighting chance anyway. Casting Cheri Oteri as a crazed, blood-thirsty Marxist revolutionary is just perverse; you spend the whole film waiting for Will Ferrell to join her in a cheer for the Spartans.
For a while Southland Tales plays as a ‘What the fuck am I watching?’ kind of movie. If it had clocked in at 90 minutes I would be enthusiastically recommending it as the latest entry in the vaunted So Bad It’s Good genre. But at two hours and twenty minutes, Southland Tales morphs into a ‘Why the fuck am I watching?’ kind of movie. There’s a point where the film reaches critical mass, where you realize that you’re never going to get a good explanation for why we’re following any of these stories, and then Kelly goes into overdrive. Just when you’ve given up giving a shit about anything you’re seeing he begins throwing in the unexplained, incoherent metaphysical stuff. By the time the movie’s sudden end comes about – the film’s finale is like a quick slap in the face, honestly – you’ll probably be a little shellshocked, a little stupefied. You might walk out into the parking lot with your friend and start discussing just what the hell was happening there at the end – why was the tattoo of Jesus’ face bleeding through The Rock’s shirt? Why did that guy want to bring about the end of the world? Why is Sarah Michelle Gellar in a dance scene in a blimp at the end? – before you realize that it’s just not worth it. There’s no real meaning to be found here, it’s all signifiers for half baked ideas that Richard Kelly never managed to turn into anything worthwhile.
I respect filmmakers who go big and fail. It’s hard to put yourself out there and eat shit, but without that willingness we would live in a world of small talents and safe movies. In theory I should respect Richard Kelly for giving something as sprawling as this a shot, but in reality I find myself annoyed with him. I’m annoyed with him because I sat through two and a half hours of his truly terrible movie, but I’m really annoyed with him because I suspect that he doesn’t understand what’s going on in this film all that much more than I do. He may be able to explain the nuts and bolts of the movie’s truly impossible to follow final moments, but the way this movie sprawls doesn’t read like ambition, it reads like having no filter. Southland Tales feels like an undigested series of ideas and concepts written down in a notebook and faithfully adapted to the screen. I think the filmmaker owes his audience only one thing, and that’s making an honest effort. While I don’t doubt that Kelly worked hard on this film while he was shooting it, nothing indicates that he ever made an honest attempt to take his raw thoughts and notions and turn them into something that could be communicated. What’s so frustrating is that it’s easy to see what themes and meanings Kelly was going for – he often has Justin Timberlake’s character just say these things as part of his narration. He also has a character named Frost constantly quoting relevant Robert Frost poems. He’s running for vice president, by the way, along with a man named Eliot. TS Eliot’s The Wasteland is quoted again and again as well. Subtle with his ‘thoughts’ Kelly ain’t – but that it’s so hard to see what is going on on the surface. Instead of burying his grand ideas in subtext, he’s buried his narrative in nonsense.
Kelly approaches this film like that same sophomore writing for the high school literary magazine: every thought he has is so profound and every idea he comes up with so original that he doesn’t need to think it through, or to try to explain himself any better. Kelly thinks he’s a genius of some kind, and his producer and financers enabled him. Instead of reading the script and realizing it was crap, they let Kelly wipe his ass with their money. Instead of reining him in and giving him guidance, they set him loose and, as the old saying goes, gave him enough rope to hang himself.
Southland Tales is a monumentally bad film, a landmark in 21st century cinematic awfulness. As we get to the final weeks of the year, it’s clear that Southland Tales is the worst movie of 2007, usurping the spot held by Halloween since this summer.