A film review by Craig J. Koban

 

SOUTHLAND TALES zero stars

2007, R, 144 mins.

Boxer: Dwayne Johnson / Roland/Ronald: Seann William Scott / Krysta Kapowski/Krysta Now: Sarah Michelle Gellar / Dr. Soberin Exx: Curtis Armstrong / Madeline: Mandy Moore / Simon Theory: Kevin Smith / Abilene: Justin Timberlake

Written and directed by Richard Kelly

There has never – and I mean never - been anything like SOUTHLAND TALES, and I sincerely mean that in the most derogatory manner possible: it’s one great big stinking, bloated, self-indulgent, confusing, unholy mess of a film.  I very rarely wish ill will on any movie or director, but someone should throw this bomb into an inter-dimensional vortex to spare all other filmgoers of its existence.  Only a filmmaker of remarkable vision and ambition could have ever made a work so unfathomably baffling, incoherent, and head-shakingly muddled.  I hated this film…hated it,  I tells ya! 

Perhaps what’s truly damning and aggravating about this fiasco is that the film aims so very high and wants to say so much that it inevitably snowballs out of control and implodes within itself within the first few minutes.  SOUTHLAND TALES is the poster film for a principle that Oscar Brotman – a Chicago movie Exhibitor - once stated: 

"If nothing has happened by the end of the first reel, nothing is going to happen.”  

I began checking my watch to see when this disaster was going to end and my first check was at 15-minute mark.  Not a good sign.

SOUTHLAND TALES is not only an endurance test; it’s a deplorable marathon that seemingly forces audience members at proverbial gunpoint to sit through its horrendously exhaustive 144 minutes.  The film never once tantalizes viewers with nifty mind games and narrative puzzles; it mocks and laughs at them with a sanctimonious smugness and petulance.  Story momentum and flow have been substituted for sheer, unhinged impenetrability.  I defy anyone – audience members, the actors in this film, hell…even the director – to cogently explain how all of this film’s incongruent pieces fit together.  And…yes…there is nothing inherently wrong with movies that tease us with their impassable themes and stories  and thrive on involving us to decipher their meaning (2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY is one of the prime examples).  SOUTHLAND TALES wants to entice us, but fails quickly, never to recover. 

What’s even more disturbing is that this film is from the same warped and ingenious spirit that is Richard Kelly, whose previous directorial effort – 2001’s cult phenom, DONNIE DARKO – was a work of such passionate complexity and audacious imagination.  It was a masterpiece of the absurd and wildly evocative and I went out of my way to proclaim it as one of the most inspired and inventive films of not only its year, but of our current decade.  The genius of DARKO was its impenetrability, but in its case it prompted repeated viewings to interpret its meaning.  Kelly tries for more of the same here with SOUTHLAND TALES, which does have moments of visual interest, but it never captivates us at all with his wonky story. 

And for that matter…just what in the hell is this film about or trying to be?  You know you’re in dire trouble when the director himself can’t seem to decide.  The DVD for SOUTHLAND TALES shows a very young Kelly describing what the film is:  At one point he labels it as his response and condemnation of The Patriot Act and the civil liberties that have been compromised in post-911 America.  He then describes it as a political satire and comedy about an alternative future where American life is slowing eroding itself away.  He then comments that it's a sci-fi action film crossed with a musical with the stylistic influences of Andy Warhol, David Lynch, Terry Gilliam, and Philip K. Dick.  He further goes on to state that the film is an indictment of the media and Hollywood and how we starve for sensationalistic pop culture stories.  He further reveals how the film is about pornography, politics, pop culture, left wing radicals, homeland security, and how we can’t beat terrorism until we win the war against ourselves.   

The film also involves a hero with supernatural abilities that has amnesia...and it also has time travel and inter-dimensional vortexes.   

Are you confused just reading that?  Me too.  

What’s clear is that Kelly is a remarkably sharp, astute, and intelligent man that has a deep desire to speak out about our post-911 world.  That is to be commended: any filmmaker with a voice that wants to say something is a merit.  But the problem and undoing of the film is that it is sadly undisciplined with what it’s trying to say, not to mention that it tries to say too much.  Some have stated that Kelly’s script comments on fascism in America, an attack on both the Right Wing (they become police state, Orwellian fascists) and the Left (they become, as far as I can tell, lesbian Marxist terrorists all played by current and former SNLers).  Then there are some that feel that the film is a take on the Book of Revelations, which is a bit more clear (war, plagues, natural disaster, and an ID card that tracks everyone).  Again, no fault to Kelly for trying to be articulate, but his focus here is utterly vacant. 

And as for the story?  I’ll try my best here.  It opens in El Paso and Abilene, Texas where they have been victims to twin nuclear attacks on July 4, 2005 (the film was shot before 2005, so 2005 is the future then, but the past now).  This sends America into war and has forever changed the social and political landscape.  The Patriot Act has been beefed up and upgraded to a new agency called US-IDENT, which watches everyone and everywhere…even public washrooms are not private.  The agency even censors the Internet and forces citizens to use fingerprint identification to access PCs and bank accounts.  

Meanwhile, a German Company, Treer, has designed an inexhaustible source of energy, which replaces gas and the US' need for foreign oil (wars in Iraq and other nations have grown out of hand).  The energy is called “Liquid Karma.”  There is one problem: the gigantic Ocean bound generators are playing havoc with Earth’s currents and are inadvertently leading to the Apocalypse.  There are also problems with the space-time continuum and ripples through the fabric of space, which opens up portals to the “4th dimension.”  Of course, this begs viewers – and the film’s characters – to ask, “What do you do when we see a rift in the 4th dimension?”  As one crazy scientist later explains, “We throw monkeys into it.”  

Oooookay. 

The script alone is headache inducing, spiraling in and out of control.  We are also given an endless supply of characters that all live in L.A. whose lives will inevitably intertwine in a would-be MAGNOLIA-esque manner.  We have Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson), an action star that has amnesia; Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), ex-porn star and host of a popular talk show that is involved with Boxer; Baron Von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn) the evil genius behind Liquid Karma; a slew of neo-Marxists terrorists all played by SNL women; Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake), a disfigured Iraqi War veteran that serves as a doomsday prophet that narrates the film’s happenings; and twin brothers (or…are they really twins?) Roland and Roland Taverner (Sean William Scott), one a neo-Marxist and the other a cop, whose destinies just could lead to the end of mankind.  

Oh…Mandy Moore shows up, as does Janeane Garofalo for literally a two second cameo (she apparently had a larger part in an early edit); even Richard Kelly’s buddy, director Kevin Smith, shows up in heavy makeup to play an Iraqi vet that turns evil.  Just in case I forgot, we also have Christopher “The Highlander” Lambert and Booger from THE REVENGE OF THE NERDS here.  What...Screech from SAVED BY THE BELL was unavailable?!

Nothing works in this film.  Nothing.  Nada.  Ziltch.  The direction is weak, the performers look completely confused and bewildered and are never once credible (especially The Rock, whom seems to never really know whom he is playing), the special effects are shockingly inconsistent, the tone is all over the map, and we even get a music video right in the middle with Timberlake and what appears to be a group of Marilynn Munro impersonators that left me...well...confused.  There are subplots involving politicians, and election, a leaked out video, a gigantic zeppelin, and a lot of self-consciously ironic and sarcastic dialogue, none of which is ever funny nor as sharp as it thinks it is.  

The making of SOUTHLAND TALES is the stuff of legend.  It started and stopped production numerous times and finally premiered in extremely rough form at the Cannes Film Festival in 2005 where it was (gasp) nearly three hours long.  It received some of the lowest test scores in the Festival's history and was considered one of the most hated works to premiere there since THE BROWN BUNNY.  In order to salvage a then already sinking film, Kelly re-edited SOUTHLAND TALES, cut 20 minutes out of it, re-scored Timberlake’s voice over, got financing for new effects (but not much if you see the results here), but in the end…it didn’t matter.  The studio released it with next to no press in November of 2007 in under 70 theaters where it grossed less than $300,000.  This is enough to make HEAVEN’S GATE look like a TITANIC-sized hit. 

It’s so exceptionally rare to see a director stand so tall, so proudly, so confidently, and so securely within his own skills with one film and then follow that up with a work of such monumental, teeth-grating awfulness.  To go from DONNIE DARKO to SOUTHLAND TALES is a travesty and injustice to fans of Kelly’s skills; it essentially defies the very physics of career momentum.  Kelly is far too skilled and has far too much to say to have this film to be his cinematic Waterloo, but SOUTHLAND TALES is wastefully bad and it goes into dark regions where films – and careers – go to die.  It's as boring, tedious, annoyingly abstract, long-winded, and depressing of a filmgoing experience as I have ever had and it will take the power of an inter-dimensional wormhole for Kelly to be sucked out of this forgettable experience.

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