July, 2008 – three years after Texas was nuked. Actor Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson) is suffering from amnesia and is holed up with porn actress Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), blissfully unaware that he has a bitch-brat wife (Mandy Moore), the daughter of Republican Senator Bobby Frost (Holmes Osbourne). Her only hope of staying in power in this, the election year, is if renegade German scientist Baron Von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn) succeeds in harnessing the energy of the ocean because America, the world, is running out of gas and the people are living in perpetual fear. Cowed by the war in the Middle East, terrorist attacks, global warming and a rocketing crime rate, their anxiety is straitjacketed by an Orwellian government that litters the streets with armed men. These include expilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake) – who might just be telepathic – and cop Roland Taverner (Seann William Scott), who seeks his lost twin Ronald (Scott) but finds the answer to a vast mystery that encompasses all of the above plus a neo-Marxist underground crusade located in Venice Beach and – thank God the people don’t know this – a half-kilometre-wide rift in the fabric of time and space, through which our wise leaders recently launched a shitload of monkeys. Oddly, all this was predicted, sort of, in the Book of Revelations (well, maybe not the monkeys part…) and, to the letter, in a script written by Boxer entitled The Power, about a paranoid schizophrenic cop (Johnson) with a supernatural gift…
OK, enough already. Somebody please put on Donnie Darko – it suddenly makes perfect sense. Watching Richard Kelly’s ambitious (read: overreaching), labyrinthine (read: impenetrable), visionary (read: bonkers) sophomore effort is, at times, a chore and a bore. But it’s also a strangely heartening experience, offering a wormhole in the time-space continuum through which the viewer can wriggle back to an age when lunatic filmmakers ran the asylum. Kelly will go on to make superior, more fully-realised movies, but Southland Tales will forever occupy a special place on his CV: it’s his 1941, his At Long Last Love, his Heaven’s Gate; indulgent, rampantly out of control and sprinkled with moments of beauty and brilliance.
The casting is inspired, if only because placing such lightweight thesps as Johnson, Timberlake, Gellar, Scott and Moore in the leads is part of the message and the joke. One of the many targets in Southland Tales is, after all, the superficiality of pop culture and today’s media, where even the news programmes flash by in a flurry of stroboscopic, truth-blinding images. This raft of pop culture icons also allows Kelly to attract – and, he hopes, politicise – the very demographic that Donnie Darko appealed to: “[Southland Tales] was made for a younger audience,” he said after it was derided at Cannes 2006. “People who watch South Park, read The Onion, watch The Daily Show, The Simpsons, read graphic novels…”
Thing is, he takes the joke too far. For while style here informs subject in much the way Natural Born Killers aped MTV to bludgeon home its satire, the result, as in Oliver Stone’s movie, is humourless and human-less. Put simply, this arch, cartoonish picture is emotionally dead, its muted visuals drained of warmth and cocooned in the silver mist of Moby’s ambient score. The protagonists talk in speech bubbles; Timberlake’s flat, Apocalypse Now-inspired voiceover tells us of the “journey down the road not taken”; and a fusion of literary nods (Philip K Dick, Kurt Vonnegut), film references (Brazil, Kiss Me Deadly) and pop videos (Timberlake mimes The Killers’ ‘All These Things That I’ve Done’) only add to the smug tone, choking the movie of any humanity.
“How’s it feel to have a wacko for a son?” Donnie asked his mom in Darko. “It feels wonderful,” came her reply, and in those three words trembled more emotion than Southland Tales has in its entire 143 minutes. Kelly is at least sincere in his convictions. Since the Cannes cat-calls, he has spent 18 months trying to allow viewers to plug into his concerned vision, trimming 20 minutes, adding 100 effects shots and sprinkling information to add clarity. It hasn’t helped. Sure to be reclaimed in the futuristic future and hoisted aloft as a cult classic, quoted and dissected, its various cuts (there will be more…) compared and contrasted, it remains, nonetheless, a folie de grandeur. Incurably so.