A doom-ridden pulp cabalist with a dark sense of purpose as well as humor, Richard Kelly shoots the moon with his rich, strange, and very funny sci-fi social satire, Southland Tales.
Kelly’s debut, Donnie Darko, was the first post-millennial cult hit; his second feature, opening here next Wednesday, achieved film maudit status long before the credits rolled during its disastrous press screening at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival. (Kelly might have lost half the audience two minutes in by simply quoting T.S. Eliot’s sonorous “This is the way the world ends . . . ” in the context of a suburban barbecue.) Southland Tales recognizes the protocols of the National Entertainment State, but, flirting with sensory overload and predicated on a familiarity with American TV, political rhetoric, and religious cant, it’s a movie without a recognizable genre or ready-made demographic. The French hated it (some things don’t travel); so did the Americans (too much information can breed resentment).
Kelly’s fever dream premiered at two hours and 45 minutes; now trimmed by 20 minutes—dropping subplots and adding voice-over—it remains a gloriously sprawling and enjoyably unsynopsizeable spectacle. (Indeed, as demonstrated by the Donnie Darko director’s cut, Kelly is actually better when his cosmology remains obscure.) Fictions breed and conspiracies multiply, alternately over- and under- explicated by cartoonish characters speaking in agitated tele-clichés. Every aspect of the convoluted narrative is monitored, scripted, and directed from within the movie. Half the characters are watching the other half. The news cycle spins merrily out of control, producing something that Kelly is pleased to term a rift in the space-time continuum.
Where Donnie Darko, which opened in New York just before Halloween 2001, uncannily anticipated the city’s post 9/11 mood, Southland Tales sets out to evoke what Borat Sagdiyev called Bush’s War of Terror. The political phantasmagoria unfolds—mainly around Venice Beach and the Santa Monica pier—in an alternately pre- and post-apocalyptic universe in which Abilene, Texas, was nuked on July 5, 2005. Since then, oil prices have spiked and an absurd German multinational has figured out how to produce energy—along with a new psychedelic drug—from the ocean. The draft is back; war has spread to Syria. Cops stand watch offshore, their RPGs trained on the beach. Thanks to the Patriot Act, cyberspace is under government control, leased to a corporation called USIdent. Plus, it’s an election year. The Republicans have nominated the poetic team of Eliot and Frost; in a throwaway gag, it’s noted that the Democrats are running Clinton and Lieberman. Local terrorists have a fish bowl of severed thumbs used to manufacture bogus votes.
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson heads the large (large) cast playing an anxious, amnesiac celebrity, action-hero Boxer Santaros, with diminutive vampire-slayer Sarah Michelle Gellar as the socially conscious porn queen Krysta Now. From this unlikely material, Kelly contrives two memorable comic performances—and even a convincing tabloid love story. Fingers nervously aflutter, the Rock projects a poignant blankness—he’s always trying to comprehend. Gellar, by contrast, is a briskly determined, humorless firebrand. “All the pilgrims did was ruin the Indian orgy of freedom,” she snaps to a sex-star-posse roundtable during the course of her View-like “topical discussion chat-reality show.”
Southland Tales begins in media res, bombarding the audience with chunks of backstory. Having been abducted and brainwashed, no longer remembering his marriage to Madeline Frost (a superbly petulant Mandy Moore), the daughter of Republican VP candidate Bobby Frost (Donnie Darko’s dad, Holmes Osborne), Santaros is shacked up with Krysta. Together they’ve written a screenplay titled The Power that, among other things, serves to program the dithering hero. Rival blackmailers—a self-described “international documentary filmmaker” (Nora Dunn) and a volatile lefty (Cheri Oteri)—strive to exploit the Santaros-Now liaison as a means to intervene in the election, variously employing a troubled cop whose twin brother is an Iraq veteran (both Seann William Scott) and a slam poet (Amy Poehler) who boasts that “all your regulation can’t stop this masturbation.” The secret controllers, however, are the Baron von Westphalen (grotty gargoyle Wallace Shawn), inventor of alternative energy Liquid Karma, and Mrs. Bobby Frost (Miranda Richardson, dressed as if to perform in The Rocky Horror Picture Show).
Retooling the Book of Revelations for cable, Southland Tales is a mishmash of literary citations, TV texts, pop music, and movie references. Kelly recruits much of his cast from Saturday Night Live. The specter of Karl Marx surfaces in various guises, including as the namesake for the last remnant of the Democratic Party. So do refugees from the world of David Lynch. Ads disrupt the flow. In one, a pair of SUVs mate; in another, an irate householder asks, “Do you think your personal privacy is worth more than my family’s safety from terrorist attack?” Music videos insinuate themselves into the flux, most elaborately when an artfully scarred Fallujah survivor (Justin Timberlake) lip-syncs the Killer’s “All These Things That I’ve Done” in a pinball arcade populated by a chorus line of vinyl-clad babes.
Clearly, this all makes sense to Kelly, who generously invites you to go with the flow. Even as the narrative arc turns to scribble-scrabble, everything does come together as the surviving characters converge at the launch party for the Baron’s new dirigible. An earthquake erupts. Riots break out. It’s just like Titanic, except Rebekah Del Rio is singing the national anthem, solemn little Krysta is previewing her new video, and a levitating ice-cream truck serves as the fatal iceberg.
Southland Tales is obsessed but not overweening, free-associational yet confident. After seeing it in Cannes, I wrote that “there hasn’t been anything comparable in American movies since Mulholland Drive“—a movie that Kelly references nearly as often as Kiss Me Deadly and The Manchurian Candidate. In its willful, self-involved eccentricity, Southland Tales is really something else. Kelly’s movie may not be entirely coherent, but that’s because there’s so much it wants to say.