Dir/scr: Richard Kelly. US. 2006. 140mins.
Maybe SouthlandTales, Richard Kelly's long-awaited follow-up to cult sleeper Donnie Darko,will work as a multimedia project with publishing, music industry and websitetie-ins; it certainly doesn't hang together as a film. Multi-genre film-makingis always a challenge, and this futuristic black comedy musical thriller,larded with facile high-school literary and Biblical references, never gets themix right. There was emotional depth and a romantic anthem for doomed youthbehind the apocalyptic hokum of Donnie Darko; here we just get the apocalyptic hokum,channelled through a bewildering ensemble of zany characters who rarely engageus.
Currently without a USdistribution deal, the film has clear theatrical leverage among members of the Darko cult, butwill tail off sharply once the negative word gets outafter its Cannes premiere in competition. The producers' only consolation - nodoubt factored into the equation from the start - is the fact that the film's tricksy multi-chapter structure, symbolic chassis andpotential for musical and game-related extras have DVD damage-limitationwritten all over them.
Reversing the trend wherebygraphic novels generate films, SouthlandTales is a film that has generated three graphic novels, consisting of thefirst three prequel sections of the story, the first of which is due to bereleased at the end of May. Kelly's overloaded fantasy world also had one ofthe most elaborate websites ever designed for a film, viewable at
"This is the way the worldends", wrote TS Eliot in The Hollow Men,"not with a bang but a whimper". Kelly switches the last part around to makethings end, unoriginally, with a bang, and takes the modified quote as thefilm's oft-repeated tag.
The bang in question is animminent cataclysm that threatens the inhabitants of Southland - southernCalifornia - as the 2008 July fourth holiday approaches. In this near-futureAmerica, civil liberties have been curtailed in the wake of the Patriot Act,and the sinister Treer corporation (
Sniper stations manned byex-Iraq vets like Private Abilene (a dazed and confused Justin Timberlake) areostensibly anti-terrorist measures, but in fact are used to keep a lid oncivilian dissent as part of the USIDentcitizen-control programme (www.usident.org).
Into this simmering socio-politicalmosh-pit steps amnesiac action star Boxer Santaros, aka Jericho Cane(Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) and two apparent twins, Roland and Ronald Taverner (both played by SeannWilliam Scott), one of whom is a police officer with a bad case of amnesia... butit's pointless trying to summarise or indeed rationalise the plot, which is soconvoluted it makes Sin City looklike a haiku.
Other major players, theircharacters as flat and pre-established as role-play warriors, include SarahMichael Gellar's former porn star Krysta Kapowski, aka KrystaNow (www.krysta-now.com), who has herown TV talk show in which adult entertainers discuss current affairs. There'salso Santaros' mother-in-law NannaMae-Frost (Miranda Richardson), the Iron-Lady head of USIdentand the wife of Republican 2008 vice-presidential candidate Bobby Frost (HolmesOsborne), who is going head to head with a man called Eliot (as in poets RobertFrost and TS Eliot - there are plenty more of these Wikipedia-gradecultural references, for those who like that sort of thing).
Marxism is another fund ofvisual and verbal nods: "von Westphalen" was themaiden surname of Karl's wife Jenny, and "Treer"recalls Trier, the town where the father of communismwas born.
Kelly has described Southland Tales as a "comedy", butdespite the presence of a horde of stand-up and TV comedy stars like Cheri Oteri, Will Sasso and Janeane Garofalo - plus KevinSmith in a pointless cameo as military commandant General Theory - Southland Tales is more relentlesslyquirky than laugh-out loud funny. The Rock, Scott and Gellar all inhabit theirroles gamely, with Gellar perhaps the best of the three at hitting the fineline between farce and melodrama that the script requires. But they're actingin hermetically-sealed capsules, as lost as the audience when it comes toworking out a connection with the other characters or the storyline.
Costume design and artdirection place us in a medium-budget near future world that chews up andregurgitates ideas from Blade Runner, Brazil,28 Days Later and Code 46. There is acertain panache in some of the hyper-real photography, low-fi special effects and insets (such as a spoof ad featuringtwo SUVs having sex). But there is also a good dose of derivative collegesci-fi aesthetics, especially in the Venice Beach techno-anarchist collectivescenes.
As in Donnie Darko, music is prominent, with anepic, melancholy electronic theme by Moby doing its best to glue the shards ofKelly's fervid imagination together, and additional tracks by Blur, The Pixiesand others. At one point we're also treated to a kitsch,choreographed musical extravaganza sequence featuring Timberlake with a gaggleof peroxide dancing girls. In fact, the best way of taking Southland Tales is to abandon the usual cinematic criteria, relaxback into the absurdity of the exercise and enjoy it as a cross between alive-action video game and a series of music video clips.
Cherry Road Films
Eden Roc Productions
William J Johnson
Seann William Scott
Sarah Michelle Gellar