‘Southland Tales’ or — ‘Dick’-ing About?

I’ve been fascinated by Richard Kelly’s ‘Southland Tales’ (2006) ever since it was brutally destroyed at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival. Did it really deserve its reputation as being one of the most pretentious, insufferable, infuriating and convoluted movies ever made? Considering that’s how I feel about Kelly’s supposed “masterpiece” ‘Donnie Darko’ (2001) then just how bad could it possibly be?! I was determined to finally find out so last night I sat down and watched the original Cannes cut and the result was interesting to say the least. That and pretentious, insufferable, infuriating and convoluted. So I hated it, right? Well, like the film, it’s complicated.

‘Southland Tales’ stars Dwayne Johnson, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Seann William Scott, Miranda Richardson, Wallace Shawn and Justin Timberlake and concerns quantum entanglement, WW III, internet surveillance, celebrity branding, pornography, neo-Marxism, the Patriot Act, reality TV, election rigging, perpetual motion, the deceleration of the Earth’s orbit, unlimited energy and rifts in the fabric of space/time. All this is told in the heavy-handed style of sub-standard Philip K. Dick over the course of 158 minutes and is so needlessly complex the director suggests that the only way to understand the movie is to read his THREE part graphic novel prequel that explains everything. You know what — I’m amazed Kelly made it out of Cannes alive.

The alarm bells start clanging away immediately because it’s blindingly obvious that Kelly is one of those precocious, delusional, idiot filmmakers who think that just because they’ve read some postmodernist fiction that they can also write at that level and, more importantly, be seen by their public as deserving to join such august company. The problem is Kelly possesses none of Dick’s imagination, Vonnegut’s wit or Pynchon’s linguistic flair so whenever anyone on screen opens their mouth to speak we can’t hear their profoundly embarrassing dialogue over the crashing noise of the movie falling flat on its face.

An example of this faux postmodernism is Kelly’s use of “hilarious” names for his characters because, you know, that’s what Pynchon and Vonnegut do, right? The problem is Boxer Santaros and Krysta Now aren’t in the same league as Kilgore Trout or Dr. Hilarius so, once again, we wince as Kelly’s doesn’t so much write and direct a movie as expose to everyone at large to just how shallow his talent is and how deep his self-delusion runs.

Not only that but all this high-minded, wilfully obscure intellectualism is completely undercut by the film’s humour which is so puerile and smug that it renders everything crass and results in the movie’s tone restlessly firing all over the place like a crazed, malfunctioning player piano.

How on earth did this movie end up such a state? The answer is surprisingly simple and the blame resides with Kelly’s apparently previous “better” effort — ‘Donnie Darko’.

You see, originally Kelly wrote ‘Southland Tales’ as a straight forward crime caper that generated a decent amount of buzz in Hollywood. However, once ‘Donnie Darko’ became a cult hit Kelly was suddenly lauded by impressionable teenagers as a genius when it comes to clever (impenetrable), smart (up its own ass) sci-fi and all this adulation (combined with Kelly’s already innate arrogance) went so far to his head that he immediately re-wrote ‘Southland Tales’ as an ambitiously complex futuristic epic. The sheer weight of such crushing hubris effectively destroyed any narrative clarity in the original script and the result was a catastrophe. Although a catastrophe not because the film is a meaningless mess (it does make a sort of sense even if that sense doesn’t really make any sense… if that makes sense?) and more that it’s overstuffed to the point of irreversible collapse.

So I hated it, right? Not exactly. In fact, I was amazed at how perversely fascinated I was by the entire thing. Sure, the plot is an unforgivable disaster but there are quite a few moments demonstrating real inventiveness and spark and when it does all come (almost) together you do get glimpses of what Kelly was aiming for and boy, he was really swinging for those fences.

The pacing is appalling but ‘Southland Tales’ does have a rather hypnotic flow to it so even though it’s all over the place the film never grinds to a screeching halt (I was shocked at how well this film held my attention but, then again, so would watching a koala sanctuary explode) although this is only apparent in the extended, original Cannes cut (yes, I watched both the Cannes and the theatrical cuts and then watched the film again with Kelly’s commentary so trust me, I know this movie WAY better than is healthy for anyone’s sanity) which contains more space for everything to breathe.

A good example of the benefit of this extra wiggle room is the moment when Dwayne Johnson drives home from a mansion at night. In the Cannes cut we spend a decent chunk of time observing him from the back seat as his car moves through the night whilst music plays before smoothly segueing into the next scene. In the theatrical version there’s a second or two of Johnson in the car, a brief blast of music then BAM! straight onto the next scene via a rather ugly and jarring edit. We’re only talking about a few seconds difference but the effect to the overall vibe of the experience is distinct and noticeable so if you do decide to watch this movie, for some unfathomable reason, then the Cannes cut is the way to go.

Still, this film is a train wreck. Its attitude towards its own audience is one of total condescension emanating from a position of unearned superiority and I suspect that accounts for the resentment fired at this movie. This alienating arrogance destroys any goodwill even the most forgiving viewer might extend to the film which is a shame because there’s some genuinely fascinating stuff going on here.

I was expecting ‘Southland Tales’ to be a cinematic calamity but it exceeded my expectations in that department to such an extent I was left totally captivated. Oh dear. I think I liked it. Christ.

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Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.

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Colin Edwards

Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.