“This is the way the world ends, not with a whimper but with a bang.” Those are the opening words to Richard Kelly’s latest film “Southland Tales.” Fans of Kelly’s earlier effort, “Donnie Darko” are in for a treat as his latest project takes “Darko’s” themes of Christ, apocalypse and time travel while combining it with ideas from “Total Recall,” “Slaughterhouse Five,” and “The Fifth Element.” In the end fans of Kelly’s past works will come out understanding and enjoying the film while others will consider it the worst movie ever made.
“Southland Tales” opens with a nuclear attack on Abilene Texas in 2005. As a result Republicans take over the government, expanding the Patriot Act and pretty much turning the US into a dictatorship with Big Brother watching all around. The Internet and all media is controlled through a dummy corporation call USIdent led by Nana Mae Frost (Miranda Richardson). The film follows the story of Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson) who is married to Frost’s daughter and disappears only to turn up with amnesia in the arms of porn star Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar). When Santaros discovers that the world will end in three days he strikes out on his own to figure out who is involved. Meanwhile a cop (Seann William Scott) joins forces with Neo-Marxist revolutionaries to take down USIdent while a disfigured pilot (Justin Timberlake) narrates it all.
That summary was incredibly hard to put out because there are so many twists and turns in “Southland Tales.” To make a cohesive summary you have to pretty much retell the entire movie. I have to applaud Richard Kelly for making what many deem the sequel to “Donnie Darko.” Kelly puts his views of the war in Iraq and government media into a dark comedy with sci-fi tendencies. The end result is a smart film that you will talk about for days after watching it. The characters, while some actors tend to ruin them, are all fun and have their moments to shine. It was also great to see references made to “Donnie Darko” throughout the film. As a side note, you might want to watch the latter film before seeing this, just to get a feel for Kelly’s storytelling abilities. A lot of the material is also discussed in a more understandable manner in that film. In essence it’s a primer for “Southland Tales.” There’s something for everyone in this movie. There’s action, violence, romance, humor, even if you don’t understand the movie. It’s also great that there is no right answer to what the ending means and for me it was great to read all the various theories going around on IMDB. I do like that this is a movie you’ll have to watch more than once to fully grasp, if you enjoyed it the first time.
As I said above, watch “Donnie Darko” before watching this movie or else you will be completely lost. If you didn’t like that movie then there’s no way you’ll enjoy “Southland Tales” since the movies share similar themes and storytelling techniques. I went with a friend who had never seen a Richard Kelly picture and she was pissed at the end of the movie. Yes this is a thinking film and you really have to pay attention to all the characters and all the corporations or else you’ll be lost. If you don’t like trippy dream sequences, you won’t like this. It was a bit of a letdown to learn that the movie makes way more sense if you read Kelly’s graphic novels that came out before the movie. I didn’t read them, didn’t know they were even out, and I think it would be better to not have to read the source material to understand the film completely.
The cast is a bit hit or miss in this movie and I think it’s because of the complex nature of the story. You really need actors who are good at complex roles to fill this out. Dwayne Johnson is good in the action sequences but playing the nervous Santaros just made him look weak. When he’s in “the Rock” mode he’s great but when he has to slow things down and be meek it comes off as corny. Sarah Michelle Gellar is hilarious as Krysta Now. Her pop song “Teen Horniness isn’t a Crime” is hilarious although Gellar is simply playing a dirtier version of Daphne from the “Scooby Doo” movies in my opinion. Mandy Moore is awesome as the jilted wife of Santaros, Madeline Frost. It was a shock to hear Moore drop F-bombs but she’s great, I’d love to see her in grittier roles. Justin Timberlake is great in his few speaking roles as Pilot Abilene but the real scene stealer is Cheri Oteri as the Neo-Marxist leader Zora. Every time she was on the screen I enjoyed her story as well as Nora Dunn’s porn director Cindi Pinziki.
You have to be a certain person to enjoy “Southland Tales.” Fans of Kelly’s first film along with the likes of Philip K. Dick will enjoy this movie while others will hate it. It’s a film that divides; you either love it or hate it. In the end it’s not the greatest sci-fi film in the world, but as a Richard Kelly film, it’s a great one.