Play It Again: Southland Tales (Flop Edition #3)

Southland Tales

By Simon Miraudo
September 17, 2013

Play It Again is a weekly feature in which our classic-film connoisseurs revisit a revered motion picture from the annals of movie history, to see if it holds up … or if it has aged terribly. And yes, it takes its name from a famously misquoted Casablanca line. (Hey, whatever. It fits!) This month, we’re looking exclusively at epic movie flops.

In Southland Tales, writer-director Richard Kelly throws a lot at the wall. The problem, if that’s what we should call it, is that everything sticks. That’s bad news for those who like some narrative clarity, and great news for those who enjoy bonkers wall art. At once a bizarro black comedy about fame, politics, and religion in a modern day Gomorrah (aka Los Angeles) as well as an existential apocalypse drama anchored by thespians Dwayne Johnson and Seann William Scott (playing dual roles, kinda), it is also a sometimes-musical that features Justin Timberlake as a disfigured war veteran and Jon Lovitz as a menacing, murderous cop. Well … how would you follow up Donnie Darko?

Upon its debut at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, it was met with full-throated jeers (which, in fairness, is how critics on the Croisette express even mild disappointment). A shortened cut was released to cinemas months later, and, with audiences warned of its now extra impenetrable and incomprehensible story, exited soon after, with less than a million dollars in the till. It has since developed a cult reputation amongst those who were entertained by its nutso nature as they were equally baffled.
Southland Tales

The first time I saw Southland Tales (which sounds like the introductory sentence probably being uttered at support groups around the world right at this moment), I was struck by its ambition, but mostly bored. On second viewing, it emerged as an unlikely comedy favourite. On the third watch, Kelly’s storytelling felt streamlined, and I walked away from it feeling like I actually understood large chunks, and perhaps even all of it. It’s possible I’m deluding myself. I have, after all, given seven hours of my life just to get this far. To quote Watchmen: “If you begin to feel an intense and crashing feeling of religious terror at the concept, don’t be alarmed. That indicates only that you are still sane.”

On the eve of the 2008 Presidential election, in a war-ravaged L.A., a Neo-Marxist group plots to bring down the Government by embroiling Boxer Santaros (Johnson), an amnesiac actor with ties to the Republican party, in an affair with porn star Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), as well as a staged, racially-motivated murder by police officer Roland Taverner (Scott). Seemingly straightforward? Not for long. Forgetful Boxer is, in actuality, the time-travelling version of himself, having been sent into the fourth dimension by a shady scientific body. The police officer that escorted him through the inter-dimensional rift – Roland – went backwards too. They were both duplicated. Though one of the Boxers died soon after the time jump, both Rolands roam free, inexplicably drawn to shake the other’s hand; an action that, if completed, will see the world subject to complete Biblical annihilation.

Southland Tales

For your sake and mine, I won’t try to unravel the parts of the movie concerning the newly-invented energy source ‘fluid karma,’ the three-way dance sequence featuring Johnson, Gellar, and Mandy Moore, or pretty much anything that occurs on the mega-zeppelin. Yeah, there’s a mega-zeppelin. As Slate wisely advise in their epic explanation of the picture’s plot, it would be misguided to attempt a literal reading of Southland Tales‘ more abstract and obtuse elements. Even declaring it a twisted retelling of The Book of Revelation – as they do – feels a little too neat. It’s better served if described as a document of its era: an hysterical commentary on the end of President George W. Bush’s reign in America, taken to its logical conclusion; a frenzied glimpse at a future that never was, where religious zealots and socialist terrorists induce the end of days.

When the movie’s narrator Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake) – an Iraq war veteran disfigured by an incident of friendly fire – drunkenly mouths along to The Killers’ ‘All These Things That I’ve Done,’ he peers directly into the camera with a sneering, dead-eyed expression as disturbing as that bunny suit from Donnie Darko. It’s a funny scene – featuring parallel universe Busby Berkeley-esque showgirls writhing up against Timberlake – yet it’s a piercing one too. Kelly has something to say about the (then) state of the union in Southland Tales. It’s not always apparent. In this instance, he hits the target.

Southland Tales

Kelly’s screenplays have always impressed/infuriated. His talents as a visual stylist have never inspired the same feelings. The best compliments paid to him always involve moments in which he collides imagery with ingenious soundtrack selections. That rings true here, also. The aforementioned rendition of ‘All These Things That I’ve Done’ is just one example. An early sequence in which Boxer and Roland – fresh from witnessing the murder of, ahem, Amy Poehler and Wood Harris – flee in opposite directions sees them engulfed by fog as The Pixies’ ‘Wave of Mutilation’ plays. And then, perhaps the movie’s most virtuoso moment: a steadicam shot following various characters as they wander around the mega-zeppelin, culminating in Bai Ling gyrating to Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s ‘Howl.’  Sometimes listing what one likes about Southland Tales sounds like listing elements from a dozen different films at once.

And how can it not? With appearances from countless Saturday Night Live alumni, not to mention Poltergeist legend Zelda Rubinstein, an unrecognisable Kevin Smith, as well as the disparate talents Wallace Shawn and Bai Ling (who share a grubby, tongue-filled embrace, no less), it’s essential watching for those who love playing ‘background artist’ bingo. Some of their character names? Vaughn Smallhouse. Walter Mung. Zora Charmichaels. Fortunio Badlucci. Simon Theory. Bing Zinneman. They go on like that. And the quotes! Those wonderful, hammy, uncomfortably delivered, and frequently hilarious quotes: “I’m a pimp, and pimps don’t commit suicide.” “Scientists are saying the future is going to be far more futuristic than they originally predicted.” “There’d be a lot less violence in the world if everyone just got a little more cardio.” “Teen horniness is not a crime.” Southland Tales is a one-of-a-kind collage that will work for few and enrage the rest. It’s the kind of picture that ends with a bang, a handshake, and a flying ice-cream truck, and that is not even close to being the strangest thing that happens. We’ll never see a work quite like it again. So, of course, everyone should see it.


Check out Simon Miraudo’s other reviews here.

Southland Tales is available on Quickflix.

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