***DISCLAIMER – The definitive review of Southland Tales can be found here***
I visit Ain’t It Cool News on a pretty regular basis, so I’d heard the rumblings about Southland Tales for a while preceding its “release,” if you want to call it that (out for 5 weeks in 63 theaters, made under $375,000 worldwide). As a devoted fan of dystopias, to the point of not hating Waterworld, I remember being intrigued. Then it flew like a lead balloon at Cannes, it didn’t even come out where I live, and I forgot all about the film. Until a few weeks ago, when the DVD was at Target for $15. I looked at it for a second and then repeated a line that has often brought me into a movie theater – “What the hell, The Rock’s in it.”
I finally had a chance to watch it recently, and I gotta tell ya: Richard Kelly set out to make a sprawling, trippy, acidic piece of agitprop. And he missed it by T H A T much. I think I liked it, but I’m not entirely sure. Not because I’m still deciding, but by the time the ice cream truck that served as a shop on wheels for an arms dealer played by Christopher Lambert, the Highlander, was caught up in a psychedelic vortex caused by a rift in the space time continuum, while Sean William Scott in a dual role encountered a version of himself from the future inside said truck, while a random kid fired a rocket launcher at a floating mega-dirigible from on top of this same truck, I was completely bewildered. The movie can, I think, be best illustrated in the form of this quote, from The Rock’s character, Boxer Santaros:
“This is an epic Los Angeles crime saga…it takes place in the near future. The basic concept is this; I play an LAPD cop who isn’t what he seems. He’s a paranoid schizophrenic, who has a supernatural gift. He sees things…And he senses a change, you see…My character, he realizes that the apocalyptic crime rate is because of global deceleration. The rotation of the earth is slowing down at a rate of .00000006 miles per hour each day, disrupting the chemical equilibrium in the human brain, causing very irrational criminal behavior.”
In the context of the film, The Rock, along with porn star companion Krystal Now, played by Sarah Michelle Gellar, is pitching this concoction as a film to Sean William Scott’s cop character. However, what The Rock has described is actually happening in the alternate universe of Southland Tales. The United States is on the precipice of economic ruin, society has become a crumbling facsimile of Orwell’s Big Brother-dominated Oceania. Following nuclear attacks on El Paso and Abilene, Texas, the PATRIOT Act has been strengthened, creating an all-seeing surveillance program called US-Ident. The principal underground resistance movement is a group called the Neo-Marxists (populated by 3 female Saturday Night Live alums), who hatch a plan to stage a double-murder perpetrated by a racist city cop as a way to inspire a rebellion against the encroaching police state and tip the balance of the coming presidential election (the Democratic ticket being Clinton/Lieberman, natch). All of this guerilla intrigue is taking place against the backdrop of the new economic power called Liquid Karma, a new scientific process developed by a scientist named Baron Von Westphalen that uses tidal energy to create the world’s first perpetual motion machines, generators that eliminate our need for oil. Liquid Karma is the thing that is causing the rift in the space-time continum stumbled upon by Boxer Santaros, who is an action movie star married to the Republican president’s (played as cretinous stand-in for President Bush, how original) daughter. Boxer is reduced to a frightened, babbling paranoid amnesiac for most of the film, due to the fact that he was sent through one of these space-time rifts and ended up time-travelling. Sean William Scott’s character also went through a rift, came out the other side, and now there are two of him walking around. When they meet in the arms dealer’s ice cream truck, it starts floating into the air and the two Stifflers could shatter our dimension. Or something. Again, I’m not sure what happened in this movie.
Also, it’s narrated by a disfigured Iraq War veteran played by Justin Timberlake, who also, when not narrating self-indulgent Richard Kelly movies, deals some sort of hallucinogenic drug. He gets the coolest scene in the movie, which has nothing whatsoever to do with the plot of the film:
This was not a well-done movie. It’s incredibly long – approximately 17 hours. The pacing drags like a Pontiac Vibe going uphill with a 747 hooked to the bumper. There are about 3 spots in the final hour where the movie could have comfortably ended, but didn’t, and instead veered off in another direction. Here’s what watching this movie is like: imagine you’re in the passenger seat with a buddy, and you’re just getting home from a long car trip. He pulls up into your driveway to drop you off, stops the car, puts it in park, and just as you’re unfastening your seat belt, he throws it back into drive and guns the car around the garage, through your back yard, and starts joyriding across your neighbors’ grass.
But for some reason, I enjoyed watching this, and would probably recommend it. Again, I like dystopias so take this with a grain of salt. But overstuffed though the movie may be, it attains a near-hypnotic quality about half-way through, and the plot is so bizarre that I really did want to see where it was going. Weirdo sci-fi stuff notwithstanding, the decrepit scenery that is the fallen, once-clean and mighty United States, as well as the broken society inhabiting it, is unsettling stuff; the government might still be trying to cling to power and enrich itself, but they’re clearly not governing anything. I’m certain that I’m giving Kelly a more coherent point than he earned, but the film seemed to say that if we abdicate our role as thinking citizens in a democracy and let everything be done for and to us, if we let the government turn into nothing more than a self-sustaining circle-jerk of the rich and powerful, then who knows what kind of crazy shit shows up to fill the vaccum? It won’t cause a rift in the space-time continum, but if we’re left to be led by morons like the Neo-Marxists, or technocrats like Baron Von Westphalen, we may be free but we’re just as screwed.