Southland Tales

Southland Tales


Reviewed by: Chris

It was a struggle to find things to like in Southland Tales. But I think I succeeded. If you sit through the whole 145 minutes, I hope you do too.

For years now, there has been talk of terrorists getting nuclear bomb materials smuggled into America. In Southland Tales, we can guess they get them across the border from Mexico. Various devices are exploded in Texas. The U.S. declares war on a host of Middle East countries. It enacts martial law at home. You need a visa to cross the state line. Or you could join a neo-Marxist underground. Police officer Roland Taverner holds a key to some vast conspiracy. Arab oil supplies drying up, a German company discovers a new source of ‘fluid karma’ energy that provides power by remote...

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This is pretty complex apocalyptic scenario stuff. An entire smörgåsbord of plot details to be absorbed. People who are easily confused might want to memorise the background first. Boxer Santaros (Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson) reappears in the Californian desert with his memory erased. He hooks up with porn star Krysta Now. Boxer is an actor with political connections. He’s writing a screenplay where what he writes seems to be prophetic in the real world. His character holds the key to save our planet from catastrophe. Meanwhile, global deceleration is disrupting the chemical equilibrium in human brains. But what sort of film is it? Blade Runner? Mad Max? Tank Girl meets Twin Peaks? It’s none of these, although you could be forgiven at times for wishing it were. Krysta mentions, “Scientists are saying the future is going to be much more futuristic than they originally predicted.” But many of the special effects look as if they were added as an afterthought.

Characters are all like caricatures, never having a normal conversation, but acting out incredibly wacky scenarios that should be funnier, or more sharply satirical, than they are. Already brimming with Book Of Revelation references, there are lines like, “Go to the base of the Santa Monica pier – through the looking glass you’ll find what you’re looking for.” This, and subsequent references to Pandora’s Box (that “had been left open to prying eyes”) wind up sounding pretentious - not least because they are never followed through or explained. And they never sound like they could have come out of a believable character’s mouth in the first place.

To enjoy Southland Tales, I tried to get inside Richard Kelly’s head. This is the guy who also wrote and directed the smash cult hit Donnie Darko. So there is some undeniable talent hidden away there somewhere. Kelly, by his own admission, is obsessed with ideas of apocalypse and trying to figure out Book Of Revelation symbolism. Not being an American Fundamentalist Christian, I find the biblical-obsession thing less than engrossing, and the silliness of the last chapter hardly the enthralling basis of a quasi-religious, conspiracy sci-fi film. But getting into that mind-set does make the constant quotes and mis-quotes at least more bearable. Like going to a Born-Again meeting on magic mushrooms perhaps. But unlike (for instance) the Qabalists, or any number of scholars who have knitted an internally consistent theory out of the Bible’s Last Chapter, Southland Tales rambles in a more or less incoherent and desultory fashion.

To bring chaos to the screen like this, you need to be at the top of your game. Like Lynch in Inland Empire. Or even Greenaway in his sprawling Tulse Luper Suitcases. Donnie Darko had a plot with a twist; Southland Tales has a collection of twists with barely a plot. You have to be very keen to invest emotional energy in two and a half hours of this poorly scripted, poorly shot, and, it has to be said, poorly directed work. If you picked out the best scenes you would have an outstanding twenty-minute short. But inept artwork and clumsy characterisation cannot save a long film that is falling apart at the seams. Jokes about bowel movements not prohibited by the Bible, or a woman demanding sex at gunpoint, might just tickle prurient fancies, but even the quasi-Christian tracts are not enough to reel in such an audience when they are, for the most part, badly delivered.

I liked the fast cuts in the introduction that took us into an unknown near future. I liked the beautifully choreographed Marilyn Monroes dancing around a bleeding hero to the tune of All These Things That I Have Done by The Killers. I liked the briefly-glimpsed Zeppelin towards the end of the film. It was just most of the bits in-between I had a problem with. Natural talent cannot entirely make up for lack of training and experience. Southland Tales needed a clearer vision from day one, not hasty re-writes before its own apocalyptic demise.

Reviewed on: 28 Mar 2008
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Interweaving science fiction stories set around a future L.A.
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