Southland Tales was Richard Kelly’s eagerly awaited follow-up to one of the most perfect films ever made, never mind debuts, Donnie Darko. The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival well over a year before it went on general release after significant edits and SFX work. UK audiences were extremely lucky to see it, because it only played in the Cineworld chain—I can probably make the claim that I was only person who actually saw the film twice in its short theatrical run. It lasted only two weeks in the UK, running on a grand total of 15 cinema screens… 13 by the second week.
The years of the George W. Bush presidency is all over Southland Tales. It’s set in an alternative 2008, where after 2005 “terrorist attacks” (who the “terrorists” are is never revealed, I suspect US-IDent was behind the attacks) in Texas. The United States is now a full-blown fascist surveillance state, and the draft has been reintroduced. The last remnants of the Democratic Party are underground Neo-Marxists—which of course is what the Republicans actually think the Democrats are today. The crux of the story is a Philip K. Dick-meets-Robert Altman tapestry of interconnected stories revolving around an amnesiac movie star, Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson); a porn star turned reality star, Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar); and the twins Private Roland Taverner / Officer Ronald Taverner (Seann William Scott). Justin Timberlake plays a PTSD-stricken Iraq war veteran Pilot Abilene, who also narrates the film.
The common criticism of Southland Tales is that it’s a “mess,” but that’s the point of the film. It’s a mess, because the Bush years was a total mess. There’s the damage he did in destabilising the entire Middle East for his “War on Terror” (a phase that still makes no fucking sense—a war on being scared?), and it’s a film about the end of the world… do you expect the end of everything will be as orderly as a British queue?
Southland Tales is the kind of film that you can only make when you are Hollywood’s golden boy… Kelly was shit-hot after Darko found its audience, and was raking in all the cash on home video. The initial script was more of a traditional crime/heist film, but as Kelly started rewriting it, he just let himself fill it with everything that popped into his head—and 9/11 had happened. It’s no coincidence that Donnie Darko was released in the US the same day that the Patriot Act was signed… or was it? It’s part savage satire on Hollywood, part film noir (Kiss Me Deadly is a heavy influence on the film), part conspiracy thriller, and definitely a Philip K. Dickian mindfuck that leaves more questions than it answers.
The cast for Southland Tales is as mad as the film itself, Kelly went out of his way to use comedic actors who wanted to showcase their “hidden talents” The Roc—sorry, Dwayne Johnson—was not the massive movie star he is today. He was still known best for being The Rock, but had done The Mummy Returns and its The Scorpion King spin-off, Doom and Walking Tall. Dwayne, like most of the cast,has expressed that he still doesn’t understand the film but respects Kelly’s ambition whenever it’s brought up. He gives easily his best performance, and it’s interesting to think what direction his career could’ve gone if Southland Tales had achieved anything at the box office.
Sarah Michelle Gellar, who of course was beloved as title character in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, perfectly captures that vapid L.A. porn star turned talk show host turned Instagram influencer (before that was even a thing) with Krysta Now. Seann William Scott, who will always be remembered as Stifler in those American Pie movies, is the film’s heart and soul, and again really stretches his talents as an actor. On the flip side, you have somebody like Miranda Richardson as the mother-in-law of Boxer and head of US-Ident, who is this great classically trained British actress. The mad-libs casting Kelly did is inspiring. He just threw in loads of SNL cast members, plus Wallace Shawn, Mandy Moore, and Kevin Smith as a legless Iraq war veteran! The two carry-overs from Darko are Holmes Osborne and Beth Grant.
Kelly’s mind is just laid bare, and if you can jump on on board with the film’s 145-minute running time, or the 159-minute running time of the “Cannes cut,” you should at least admire Kelly’s unfiltered youthful ambition on screen. It’s a crime against celluloid that Christopher Nolan is arguably the biggest director on the planet, and Kelly hasn’t made something since 2009’s woefully underrated The Box. I get that all three films he has made haven’t set the box-office alight, but he is a true original. I know he has been pursuing new projects, and has come close a few times, but listen up, Netflix, HBO Max, Amazon—give his guy a fucking TV show and your budget for cocaine, and let him do something… anything.
Southland Tales was a warning from the future for the then-present that predicted our surveillance state: the revelations leaked by Edward Snowden on are on full show here, and the NSA are named! Hell, even Trump is somewhat predicted. Southland Tales remains a bewildering messy masterpiece that I hope someday Kelly can re-edit to match his original vision, although I’m not holding my breath. It even has a show-stopping trippy musical number of Justin Timberlake lip-synching to The Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done.”
The release from Arrow includes both the theatrical cut and the longer “Cannes cut.” I prefer the theatrical cut, simply because it’s more “finished,” especially in relation to the VFX, but the Cannes cut includes some scenes that add to the already sprawling narrative and were cut for time more than anything. The main new extra is “It’s a Madcap World”, which is a masterclass in how to do a documentary by Zoom interviews. Sadly none of the cast are interviewed, but it’s an interesting look at the development and making of the film. The featurettes and Kelly commentary from previous releases are included, as is an image gallery and the theatrical trailer. It’s a shame that there are no deleted scenes, because there is obviously an enormous amount of footage. The booklet contains new writing on the film by Peter Tonguette and Simon Ward.