Wednesday night. Eight people. Only four survivors. The emotional toll for those who endured was almost too much to handle. The situation: Southland Tales, the two-hour, forty-minute Richard Kelly follow-up to the classic Donnie Darko. It was a massacre if I ever saw one, where fifty percent of the audience was shot down, their lives destroyed in an instant. Only it wasn’t an instant. One man, popcorn still in hand, didn’t make an hour, and the three large young ladies who had to sit down right behind me, most likely just to annoy me by talking the entire time (though as it turns out their commentary helped get me through the rough patches), left just before the scene where one SUV humps another SUV. I’d never seen so many people walk out before, but I don’t really blame them: Southland Tales is a mess, and not the fun mess Kelly was shooting for.
I am a big fan of Donnie Darko, and in terms of theme, Southland Tales isn’t that far removed. There are wormholes, time travel and distortion of reality, but how all of that is delivered is so absurd and unruly that it’s nearly impossible to enjoy. Southland Tales is like one of those movies you see in another movie, where some low grade director is trying to make an epic, and when he sits down at the premiere he watches in horror as everyone falls asleep or gets up and walks out. The movie is an epic; it’s just an epic that doesn’t find its identify and isn’t able to engage the audience. It has a message, but without interesting characters or an entertaining plot, Southland Tales falls apart at the seams.
The movie is set in the near future, three years after two nuclear bombs went off in Texas. The United States retaliated strongly, bombing Iraq, Iran, Syria and Afghanistan and prompting World War III. Domestically, borders have been set up for interstate transportation, the fate of the Presidential election relies solely on California, and hundreds of small militant groups have popped up to fight against Republican oppression. In response, the government has set up a domestic spying system and expanded the Patriot Act, essentially eliminating many liberties that made America so great. On top of everything else, due to the lack of accessibility to oil, one man has invented an alternate energy source – but its environmental impact remains to be seen.
Specifically, the movie follows popular actor Boxer Santaros (The Rock), who finds himself in the arms of a prostitute/daytime talk show host (Sarah Michelle Gellar). They have written a screenplay together about the end of the world, but his girlfriend’s intentions may not be so sincere. She is in league with a Marxist rebel group who hope to use Boxer’s ties to the Republican Party to influence the Presidential election. Furthermore, more mysterious is Boxer’s sudden amnesia. He disappeared for three days and a body was found in Nevada, and the government is wondering where he went, who took him and for what purpose. As Fourth of July celebrations fast approach, a society on the brink of destruction is going to edge ever closer.
I am quite amazed I simplified the plot into something coherent, as it’s something even Richard Kelly clearly never did. The story sounds simple enough, but if you’ve seen Donnie Darko, you knew that Kelly doesn’t truly know that word. It’s all well and good when you have the mesmerizing storyline and likable characters of Darko, but when you take those same deep-seeded issues and scatter them over a convoluted story with satirically strange characters and plot points, it just doesn’t work. Parts of the movie reminded me of a David Lynch story, but Richard Kelly is no David Lynch. Weird for weird sake is not appropriate or accepted.
I respect Kelly for trying to make an epic out of a political satire/sci-fi drama-comedy, but Southland Tales is a major misstep for a man who is going to have to recover quickly to prove that Darko was not a fluke.
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