Writer-director Richard Kelly’s follow-up to his cult classic Donnie Darko is such a massive undertaking with all the ideas he wants to deal with that it unfortunately collapses under the weight of its aspirations. It’s a noble effort, but by attempting to tackle so many subjects, the film fails to get a grip on any of them. Kelly describes Southland Tales as “30 percent comedy, 30 percent musical, 30 percent thriller, and 10 percent science fiction,” but ultimately it is a satire that looks at the effects Hollywood, the War on Terror, and technology have on human beings individually and as a society.
The film opens with a nuclear attack happening in two Texas suburban neighborhoods on the 4th of July, 2005. Three years later, America is under virtual martial law as the Patriot Act has been turbocharged and the organization USIDent has taken control of everything. People are under constant surveillance in the streets and on the Internet. The world is almost out of oil, but a German company has created an energy device that is perpetually powered by the ocean.
The rest of the story is set in Los Angeles with a wide array of characters. Private Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake) used to serve in Iraq and now patrols the California coastline manning a very large gun. He is addicted to a strong psychotropic drug called Fluid Karma. Action hero Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson) is married to Madeline Frost (Mandy Moore), whose father is a senator running for President, but when we first meet him, he is suffering from amnesia and living with his girlfriend, porn star Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar). Together they have developed a screenplay for Santaros while she hosts a reality/current events discussion show joined by her female co-stars. Zora Carmichaels (Cheri Oteri) leads a small band of Marxist revolutionaries who are attempting to overthrow the government. Roland and Ronald Taverner (Seann William Scott) are twin brothers on opposite ends of the spectrum. One is a police officer and former Iraq War soldier who served with Abilene, the other a revolutionary in with Carmichaels. These characters are all unbelievably tied together by the film’s end.
The film is actually part of a larger story. The first three chapters of Southland Tales were released as graphic novels, and the last three make up the film. The reasoning for this is unclear unless it had to do with financing, but it still seems like a very odd choice to make many viewers walk into the middle of the story. Although I haven’t read them, it’s hard to accept the notion that they would have made a difference.
The film has a lot of influences and is filled with many references that the director thought were clever, but pale in comparison to the source material. Phillip K Dick’s presence can be felt throughout. Most notably his short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,” the basis for Total Recall, is very similar to what Santaros is going through. His character in the screenplay is Jericho Kane. Some people refer to him as Kane and at times real-life events mirror scenes from the script. There also elements of Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Altman, Dr. Strangelove, Blade Runner to name a few.
Southland Tales is a brilliant failure; however, Kelly’s ambition and the cast and crew’s commitment to serving his vision are worth acknowledging. Many will dislike suffering through it, although some will leave early, but the film will gain a cult following and should do well on DVD and the midnight movie circuit. The film does have good moments, but they are far outweighed by the ones that come up flat. Some fans will undoubtedly trumpet the film as different and brilliant, but I would question their awareness and understanding of Southland Tales’ many influences. Many artists have covered the same ideas in films and novels, but executed them much better. Time spent with their material would be a better option.