Southland Tales Review: It’s got Soul, and it may not be a soldier but I have absolutely no idea what it means

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Here is what I can tell you about Southland Tales, the sophomore effort of Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly:

1. It is set in 2008.

2. It stars The Rock, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Justin Timberlake and Seann William Scott as well as an assortment of old Saturday Night Live players (Cheri Oteri, Amy Poehler, and Jon Lovitz) and several 80s movie faces (Booger from Revenge of the Nerds, the Highlander, and Vizzini from The Princess Bride).

3. It includes the following: a car having sex with another car on alternative fuel, a prophetic screenplay, an all porn-star McLaughlin Group, Marxist hippy radicals, and a zeppelin.

Here is what I can’t tell you: what any of it is supposed to mean.

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Southland Tales begins with a prologue that establishes the setting as a slightly more paranoid Los Angeles, with Justin Timberlake’s narration setting the stage with the apocalyptic imagery of Abilene Texas going up in a nuclear attack. As a result, America has shifted into an Orwellian state with strict government controls and a pervasive surveillance system. Timberlake plays an Iraq veteran whose unit has been stationed to protect UTOPIA 3, a new energy source that harnesses the movement of the tides by the Santa Monica Pier to create a wireless energy network. Timberlake acts as an observer, watching the movements of many of the other characters through his cameras and sniper scope and dropping bits of the Book of Revelations.

Boxer Santaros, an amnesiac movie star played by the Rock, is traveling with a cop named Roland (or Ronald) Taverner (played by Seannn William Scott) in order to do research for the screenplay that he wrote with porn star/talk show host Krista Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar) who apparently knows how to rock the 12 point courier with as much facility as she rocks the cock. It seems like their screenplay is coming true, and it may or may not have something to do with Seann William Scott’s search for his twin brother and the fact that he no longer seems to need to have bowel movements. There are about eight sub-plots that come together in various ways, and even more that do not.

Southland Tales is kind of a mess. In terms of clarity, accessibility, and linear sense it makes Donnie Darko look like Homeward Bound. Richard Kelly clearly had an abundance of ideas, and he throws many of them at the screen without a great deal of effort in making them into a coherent whole. The end result feels like a pre-apocalyptic parody with a healthy dose of David Lynch. Rebekah Del Rio even makes an appearance, delivering a creepy star spangled banner that feels just as foreboding as her turn in Mullholland Drive.

He had so many ideas, that half didn’t even make it onto the screen. Not only is this a pared down (from its Cannes premiere) directors cut of Southland Tales. The movie plays out in three chapters, labeled episodes IV-VI. The story really begins in a series of graphic novels written by Richard Kelly and released as The Prequel Saga.

I read these comics, and they served as a good primer for the strangeness to follow. I think if I had not read them, I would have been utterly lost. As it was, I was only marginally lost. The comics fleshed out the back stories and laid the ground work for the sprawling saga. For instance, the film breaks into a musical interlude where Justin Timberlake, having injected himself with a drug called Fluid Karma, lip synchs “All These Things That I’ve Done” by the Killers belting out “I’ve got soul, but I’m not a Soldier to a chorus of sexy nurses. It makes no sense in the context of Southland Tales, the film. But in the graphic novel, we see that this is the song that was playing when Timberlake’s character was injured by fellow soldier Seann William-Scott in a friendly-fire incident when they were in Fallujah. The soldiers were being used as military test subjects for the battlefield telepathy side effects of Fluid Karma, and they shared a bond. It gives the scene some anchor, and made it particularly resonant for me.

So its messy, convoluted, and strange. But it is still engrossing and just a little bit haunting. Southland Tales is one of the rare movies that I enjoyed but would not recommend to others. I think its essential to read the prequel comics and see the movie at least twice, and the rewards of the film probably don’t warrant the effort. And its not fair of Richard Kelly to force the audience to such lengths to make sense of his films. Even Darko fans will be disappointed and I don’t see Southland Tales taking on the same kind of cult significance. On the plus side, this suits my contrarian nature as I will have to argue the merits of a film that everyone else seems to hate.

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