Southland Tales – The Cannes Cut (2006)
Written & Directed by Richard Kelly
The promise of Richard Kelly was huge and seems to have dimmed in the last decade. In the wake of Donnie Darko, he was suddenly rocketed to the list of hot up-and-comers. I was definitely one of those people caught up in the Darko hype. I still hold that it’s his best work to date and that his subsequent work never felt quite as honed and clear. Southland Tales was the follow-up with a bigger budget and big names in the cast. It debuted at the Cannes Film Festival, and it was hailed as a disaster, bloated and too sprawling. Another cut was made for the theatrical release, and the reaction was much the same from audiences.
Southland Tales is the story of many people and how their paths intersect, leading to the end of the world. It begins with found footage of a Fourth of July celebration in Abeline, Texas. This is the day a nuclear attack was launched and plunged America into a more aggressive police state. Two years later, we meet Boxer Santeros (Dwayne Johnson), an action movie star married to a senator’s daughter who disappeared for a few days. He’s shown back up around Venice Beach and is shacking up with pornstar & aspiring media empire builder Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar). They have written a screenplay together, The Power, which they claim predicts future events.
Boxer has set up a ride-along with Officer Roland Tavener (Seann William Scott), a member of the newly formed federal police. Roland is only doing this because a group of insurrectionists is holding his twin brother hostage and want the encounter with Boxer to be part of a stage racially motivated murder by a cop. Things go south, and Roland is plunged into chaos; a real murder happens instead of the fake one. Along the way, we learn about USIdent, a domestic surveillance operation that monitors all citizens 24/7, even in the bathroom. There is also the Treer Corporation, a German scientific outfit that has developed an infinite energy supply called Fluid Karma using the perpetual motion of the waves. This has led to a partnership with the Pentagon, with experiments happening to soldiers overseas in Iraq.
I have barely touched upon the characters and subplots in this film in this summary. Southland Tales is bursting at the seams with ideas and subplots. But they rarely add up to much, or when they are explained through very direct exposition or voice-over, they fail to live up to the hype. The version I watched was the more extended Cannes cut where voice-over narration from Pilot Abeline (Justin Timberlake) serves as the audience’s means of understanding who everyone is and what the hell is going on. I can remember reading in Robert Mckee’s Story that he considered voice-overs to be a crutch mediocre screenwriters use to tell their stories. I don’t think that is universally true, but in Southland Tales, not even extensive explanation helps crack the narrative.
Southland Tales did not start out as an apocalyptic science fiction film. From reports about the original pre-9/11 script, it was a satire of the movie industry with lots of complicated crisscrossing betrayal. The Treer Corporation & the Iraq War content were all added after the falling of the twin towers. It’s clear that things like the Patriot Act had a profound effect on Kelly, and he certainly has a lot to say about the state of America post-9/11. The problem is that he fails to be coherent with his thoughts and blends together so many disparate plot points, inspired by the near future existential paranoia of Phillip K. Dick. I love the feel of Southland Tales, but the execution is incredibly dismal.
I also wonder what the ending of the picture implies. With this viewing of the movie (my fourth since it was initially released), this was the first time I got the impression the world might not end. The final scenes hinge on what happens to Roland Tavener, and the voice-over from Pilot Abeline implies he does not die but transcends into a new being. I don’t know if this means the universe ends, and Roland keeps going as a more evolved being in a new world or if Roland stops the apocalypse from happening. Once again, the movie is unclear not in an ambiguous way that I enjoy but in a convoluted hard to understand manner.
Southland Tales signaled that Richard Kelly was going to have some difficulty in his filmmaking going forward. This is both from the box office failure perspective and a display that his creative juices might be flowing a little too much, unrefined. Maybe one day I revisit his last film (so far), 2009’s The Box, another mind-boggling disaster but still fascinating. Will Kelly ever deliver on that promise of visionary filmmaking, or will he end up with a few curious oddities.