Richard Kelly’s second feature, Southland Tales, is by no means flawless, but its ideas have never been more timely and the legion of Donnie Darko fans should be out there supporting it like they do that film.
Kelly’s second film is an ambitious and, sometimes, confounding tale that might be too jam packed with characters and convolutions for its own good, but its audience deserves to be much larger. The film, from 2006, is full of anger towards the Bush Administration and it is kind of eerie to see how prophetic Kelly’s script was in assessing our country’s privacy future. Sure, things are heightened and far more anarchist here than in real life, but Kelly is right on target with a number of encompassing ideas.
Kelly’s vision of our political future is also a bit too optimistic when it comes to the liberal’s acceptance of mass surveillance. Where he sees anarchy, rebelling against these liberty denying practices, the real world has reacted mostly with malaise. Kelly also gives a bit too much credit to the Right as the nefarious brilliance of their manipulation is a bit too generous compared to what that side of the aisle has become, but regardless, the recent news surrounding the NSA makes the film incredibly relevant to the audiences of 2013. The massive surveillance of citizens is far more invasive here than what we have been told is happening currently with the NSA, but the parallels are strong enough for us to give a lot of credit to Kelly. He saw where our country was heading and everything we would sacrifice in the name of protection against faceless terrorists. Sadly, he thought the citizens of the U.S. would fight more fiercely instead of shrugging our shoulders like we have.
Thankfully our global military presence has diminished greatly compared to Kelly’s vision in the film, but having made the film in the heart of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars he isn’t afraid to share an anti-war sentiment across the board. Kelly plays the corporatization of the military for laughs mostly, but again he strikes a chord of relevance to today. Through our military industrial complex and just plain greed, corporations are ever pushing our government out of the hands of the people and forcing their greater needs over that of the people. Power is in the hands of a few in the world of Southland Tales and while it isn’t entirely clear what their motives are, or even who the puppet master is, their focus is on themselves, not the nation as a whole.
Kelly was also right on the mark in regards to climate change, destroying our environment for the sake of profit, striking fear into the people as a means of control as well as political posturing purely for self preservation and while all of these ideas seem 20/20 in hindsight they were just as forward thinking as the aforementioned points on military and surveillance. Watching Southland Tales seven years after its release makes the film that much more relevant and affecting as Kelly’s savage vision of the U.S.’s future was, sadly, more accurate than most anyone would have liked. But under all of this prophesying Kelly actually put together a fun film as well.
I have mentioned that the film has bloat, there are plenty of loose ends and many characters/plot seem to lose sight of their goals, but dammit if I didn’t have a good time along the way. While I’m sure future viewings might clear up some of those plot issues, it plays far more cohesive just on a second watch alone. One thing I noticed is that you just have to give yourself over to the inevitability of everything that is happening in regards to the end of the world. There is so much unseen control and prophecy in the film that the sometimes head scratching plot can be forgiven. Sure I would have liked to see the story stripped down to basically follow our three heroes of the film, Boxer Santaros, Roland Taverner & Krysta Now, but we would then also miss out on a number of the funnier bits in the film. Amy Poehler & Wood Harris are great as a pair of slam poet Liberal Marxists and while their funniest moments come at their expense, they do a great job of setting up just how dumb Kelly thinks some of these anarchist ideas are. Kelly litters his cast with a number of great comic actors and he makes the most of them as they give many of these heavy and scary ideas just the twinge of absurdity the film needs.
Kelly’s three leads are all standouts, with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson delivering his first great performance as Boxer Santaros. A couple of his little ticks don’t work all that well, but Johnson gives the character an arc from lost puppy to appropriate bad ass. All of this while showing off a comedic timing that we have only seen grow throughout the years. It also helps that Santaros’ story is the most fleshed out of the leads, as Seann William Scott and Sarah Michelle Gellar aren’t given nearly as much to do as Johnson. That isn’t to say they aren’t good they both deliver roles against type and are rather successful at it. Gellar is particularly great as the ditzy, but still kind of smart, porn star Krysta Now who Kelly gets to have a lot of fun with as he pokes fun and reality television and celebrity. Gellar gives the role her all and is one of the more likable/relatable characters of the film. Scott on the other hand is the straight man of the film and he does a great job of keeping Taverner interesting even though he doesn’t have a lot to do. Starting off a pawn before eventually coming an essential piece of the apocalypse is quite a long way for a character to go over the course of a film, and Kelly rushes it even, but I was still able to buy Scott’s performance in those later moments. My only wish might be we got more between Taverner and Pvt. Abilene, played by a very good Justin Timberlake, as their relationship seems rather vital to the events of the film and we barely get to see any of it.
Southland Tales is also one of the more interesting and original sci-fi films of this young century and it proves that Kelly is a talent that excels at mixing genres. Could the science behind a lot of the crazier elements of this film been a bit better explained, probably, but Kelly gives us enough pieces to make the story work, for the most part. Most importantly the film gets the to where it needs to in the end. I will take interesting imagery/visual storytelling over endless scenes of expository explanation any day of the week.
Kelly also did something rather interesting with the film in that there is a prequel comic telling the first three chapters of this story. It goes a long way to helping you understand the Southland Tales Saga by helping connect people better while filling in some of that back story you might be looking for the first time through on the film. The graphic novel is solid, but after watching the film a second time it seems less essential. Giving yourself over to the film’s aforementioned sense of destiny really allows it to work without it. Still, fans of the film should certainly check it out as it was both an interesting and successful experiment in storytelling; even if the film never found the audience it deserved.
Southland Tales is a little seen film, but it is certainly one that deserves a bigger audience than it has. Centered around the Fourth of July it might become a new staple of the holiday for me, but if you have missed out on this weird and original film up until now don’t wait till next year. The film is more relevant than it ever has been today and there are a number of fun sci-fi elements to keep you scratching your head; in a good way.