Once upon a time, writer/director Richard Kelly took the credibility he gained from cult hit Donnie Darko and unleashed Southland Tales upon an unsuspecting audience. The world was never the same, nor was Jacob Farley.
Partway through the Rogers & Hammerstein classic The Sound of Music, a group of nuns sing a song called “Maria” (sometimes called “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria”), lamenting the fact that Maria is, while a lovely person, just too strange and happy and fun to make for a really good nun, even though that’s what she thinks she wants to be. Richard Kelly’s 2007 mega-flop Southland Tales is basically Maria—it has lofty aspersions of being a serious and thoughtful piece about philosophy and religion and life but inadvertently shoots itself in the foot with its essential frivolity at every possible opportunity.
On further reflection, maybe that analogy doesn’t make any sense but, you know what? I’m going to leave it in anyway, because making no sense is what Southland Tales is all about! It’s in the spirit of the thing.
Tragically, I can’t say that I saw Southland Tales in theaters, but in my defense almost no one can say that. According to Wikipedia, it grossed a grand total of $374,743 in theaters. Worldwide. There are no missing zeros there—it really did make less than a single Friend was paid on a per-episode basis towards the end of the popular tv show F*R*I*E*N*D*S. A single Friend could have donated a single paycheck and more than doubled the box-office intake of Southland Tales (probably Joey—he seems like he’d be the most sympathetic to making a movie nobody understands or likes).
Instead, I was convinced to see it shortly after it came out on DVD, by a well-meaning but already crazed friend. You see, to encounter Southland Tales is to know madness, to be driven to the edge and beyond. You come back changed. You come back infected with a disease, a rabid drive to expose others to Southland Tales and to make them understand even as you already know that understanding is, in truth, impossible. There is no understanding Southland Tales. There is only surviving it.
The dancing flame of chaos and madness that lives forever in my soul already demands that I make each and every one of you watch Southland Tales if I can, so please allow me to entice you with what could best be described as a plot synopsis.
Ok, so in 2005, Texas gets nuked. Not sure why, or who did it. Probably someone in the Middle East, because this apparently kicks of a big ol’ war between Syria and North Korea and Iran and, I guess, the U.S. Justin Timberlake serves in this war and gets his face all blown up. Justin Timberlake will be our narrator for this film, by the way, observing most of the action from a gigantic mounted gun platform near either Santa Monica or Venice Beach. When he’s not delivering dry exposition, he’ll be quoting from the Bible (mostly Revelation, due to the symbolism) and from the works of Karl Marx. Also, everyone calls California “the Southland” now, for reasons which are also unclear. Just go with it.
I should mention at this point that the movie actually starts at “Chapter 4,” because there is a three-part graphic novel providing crucial backstory to the world and characters which you’re meant to have read first but I’ve never read because I don’t believe in doing homework for movies and also I’m pretty sure it’s been out of print for a decade now.
Ok. Anyway. Fast-forward three years in the movie—it’s 2008. There’s a big election coming for California and the big issue is USIDENT, a government surveillance program that has seemingly limitless capacity to invade citizen’s privacy. Everyone is going to vote about whether or not this is a good thing.
Meanwhile, a bunch of “neo-Marxist” liberal terrorist cells (mostly made up of SNL alums) are doing terrorist things like kidnapping movie stars and attempting to set up a con involving a fake LAPD officer being racist. Hang on, we’ll come back to that one.
Also meanwhile, a famous Schwarzenegger-esque movie star named Boxer Santaros (Dwayne “THE ROCK” Johnson) has been found in the Nevada desert. It’s frequently noted that he has “ties to the Republican Party.” He has a sort of light case of amnesia in that he remembers he’s a famous actor, but does not remember that he’s married to Mandy Moore. He is currently living with Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), a porn star/talk show host/pop singer and together they have written a screenplay called “The Power.” This screenplay accurately predicts the end of the world due to the Earth’s rotation slowing down by a tiny amount every day. We’re assured by multiple different parties that this screenplay is indeed 100% accurate, but it’s never made clear how anyone knows this for sure. Also, the main character in this screenplay is named “Jericho Cane,” which is the name of Schwarzenegger’s character in the not-very-good apocalypse flick End of Days. So it’s subtle, you see.
Ahem. Ok. Also meanwhile—a group of neo-Marxist terrorists have kidnapped an LAPD cop named Ronald Tavener (Seann William Scott, looking curiously like Jason Statham throughout). They have, by means unknown, enticed his twin brother Roland Tavener (also Seann William Scott) to take Ronald’s place in the LAPD while Boxer Santaros does a ride-along as research for “The Power.” The purpose of this is so that Roland can pretend to be really racist. They’ve also set up a fun double-murder scenario to play out, where Wood Harris and Amy Poehler will wear fake noses and pretend to fight and Roland will pretend to shoot them so that Boxer will capture it on his video camera and release it to the public and thus the LAPD will be shamed for being racist. This will have some kind of impact on the election, everyone seems to believe. Apparently the most fantastical element of this sci-fi movie is that it takes place in a world where the LAPD is not already notoriously racist.
Ok. Ok. Ok. So. Another important thing going on is that the world is about to be forever transformed by a new source of free wireless energy called “fluid karma.” Fluid karma was invented by “renegade scientist” Baron von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn, in full “INCONCIEVABLE!!!” mode). Fluid karma is an energy source, but it is also a drug which people are constantly doing for recreational purposes and also using to knock people out and also doing it too much maybe gives you superpowers, which is how Krysta Now gained the psychic powers that allowed her to write a prophetic screenplay entitled “The Power.” Fluid karma appears to be derived from the dead bodies of soldiers, or possibly just the replicated dead body of Seann William Scott.
I can feel the madness taking hold.
Ok, so let’s take a moment to address one of Southland Tales’ strangest issues—the casting. Richard Kelly appears to have heard the aphorism “comedy is harder than drama” and taken it to mean that, if you want real quality performances, you should actually hire comedy actors, specifically former SNL performers if at all possible. As such, this movie is full of serious characters played by people like Jon Lovitz, Nora Dunn, Amy Poehler, Curtis Armstrong, Kevin Smith, John Larroquette, Will Sasso, and Cheri Oteri. These folks are all a lot of fun, but they aren’t really seasoned dramatic performers. Everything is delivered as if it was a joke, but it definitely isn’t meant to be a joke, which gives everything an incredibly weird rhythm. You’re just waiting for a punchline that never, ever comes.
Ok. Anyway. What turns out to have happened is that Baron von Westphalen discovered time travel. He tried to send a monkey back, but monkey souls can’t stand the time travel process, so he decided to send a movie star—Boxer Santaros—back in time instead. This created a duplicate Boxer which burned up in a car fire. Also, Ronald/Roland Tavener went back in time too, creating another duplicate, which is both an LAPD officer and a former soldier who blew up Justin Timberlake’s face. Ultimately, Ronald and Roland shake hands in an ice cream truck, which begins to glow and levitate like at the end of Repo Man (a much better movie—you should watch Repo Man). The zeppelin that Boxer is on is blown up by missiles as Boxer’s big tattoo of Jesus begins to spontaneously bleed.
Also Bai Ling is in this movie, and Christopher Lambert, and Zelda Rubenstein.
Eventually, Justin Timberlake does drugs and hallucinates an entire music video set to a chopped-up version of the Killers song “All These Things That I’ve Done.” I honestly think this whole movie is just Richard Kelly’s two-and-a-half-hour-long excuse to make a music video he thought of in the shower. Honestly, it’s not a bad video. I mean, you hire Justin Timberlake for your music video, you’re getting a real pro.
A woman threatens to shoot herself unless she’s allowed to give The Rock a blowjob. Instead, Justin Timberlake kills her with a giant rife.
Mandy Moore is in it, eventually, for all you This Is Us-heads out there.
Krysta Now’s pop song is called “Teen Horniness Is Not a Crime.”
The final chapter of the movie is titled “Wave of Mutilation,” after the Pixies song. That’s a great song. Can’t fault Richard Kelly for that one.
At one point, the action is interrupted to show a full car commercial featuring the incredibly graphic full-penetration penis-in-vagina CGI automobile sex that Pixar was too scared to show us.
For a single shot, Sarah Michelle Gellar is lit in this weird, luminous, 1930s light. I think it’s meant to indicate that she just smoked weed.
Wallace Shawn has Bai Ling cut off the Prime Minister of Japan’s whole hand. He wants to have it bronzed. I don’t really know why. I guess just because Wallace Shawn is evil.
Apparently Justin Timberlake’s character (“Pilot Aberline”) was a famous actor before his face got blown up in Iraq. Then he got addicted to drugs and started trading red fluid karma in exchange (?) for weed. He runs this operation out of a, like, old arcade on Venice Beach.
The Rock drinks beer by taking an entire six-pack, opening one of the beers, and then holding it three feet over his face and pouring it onto his mouth and chest.
Kevin Smith plays a bald old soldier man with a big Rip Van Winkle grey beard who is in charge of fluid karma. He calls The Rock’s gun a “sidearm” in a very self-consciously actor kind of way.
Cheri Oteri graphically murders a man by running him over with a car twice.
Nora Dunn shocks John Larroquette in the balls with a taser. They are in a diner. She is calling herself “Deep Throat 2” and attempting to extort a “no” vote on the USIDENT bill.
In the end, it turns out that Seann William Scott accidentally blew up Justin Timberlake’s face with a grenade in Iraq. That’s why they both got addicted to doing fluid karma, the energy source/party drug/anesthetic derived from the dead bodies of soldiers killed in a war. Seann William Scott confronts the other Seann William Scott and they forgive themselves. A zeppelin explodes, killing most of the other characters.
Watching it now in 2017, Southland Tales’ depictions of nuclear attacks, world wars, and environmental crises are, uh, well, they’re not exactly hilarious hypotheticals anymore. Nevertheless, the movie essentially killed Richard Kelly’s career. I think that’s a shame, honestly—while this movie is a fever dream transmitted directly from the depths of one man’s mind, it’s not incompetently made. (Note: I may be under some kind of Southland Tales-induced mind control.)
For me, the best part of watching Southland Tales is to watch it while exposing someone else to it for the first time. This time around, I made my wife watch with me. Here are some excerpted statements of hers from the hour and twenty minutes or so she was willing to tolerate the movie:
- “What? Fuck you.” (at least 6 times)
- “Oh my god”s – 7
- Sighs – too many to count.
- Yelled “Nooo” at least once.
- One quietly whispered “Why is this happening”
- One “WHYYY WHYYY??”
- [gets up to get ice cream bars] “Why did you pause it?! I don’t want to be watching this!”
- “What the fuck?? What the FUCK??”
- “What the fuck is this score? Ugh.”
- “OHHH MY GOD FUCK YOU”
Please see Southland Tales, if only to justify my wife’s pain.