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  Southland Tales

Starring: Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Seann William Scott

Directed by: Richard Kelly

Produced by: Sean McKittrick, Kendal Morgan-Rhodes, Bo Hyde, Matthew Rhodes

Written by: Richard Kelly

Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films


As seen at AFI Fest 2007:

     There are many things wrong with Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales, but underneath all of its flashy excess, one realizes the true reason why the movie fails: it is just another ridiculous, uninformed cinematic assault on the Bush Administration. Like Donnie Darko (Kelly's previous feature) on steroids, the movie talks in circles and engages in mindless tomfoolery at will (only this time without the brains to back it up). For much of the running length, most viewers will have no clue what’s going on in terms of the central story, but the movie’s thesis boils down to the following simple idea: the Bush Administration is violating the civil liberties of Americans on a regular basis and this will ultimately lead to the United States becoming a fascist state led by Neo-Conservatives. In other words, Southland Tales may seem to be one of the most complex mindfucks in the history of filmmaking, but it really only exists to vocalize one-dimensional and half-baked political assertions.

     Southland Tales takes place in July 2008, in a radically different United States than the one that we live in today. In other words: the country has fallen by the wayside and it’s all Bush’s fault. After two towns in Texas, El Paso and Albeine, were nuclear-bombed and World War III commenced, the U.S. Government soon militarized and decided to abuse the Patriot Act in order to develop an organization called USIdent, which monitors everyone, everywhere, all the time. And the fascistic ways of said government aren’t about to change; Republican Senator Bobby Frost is poised to win the 2008 Presidential Election against Hillary Clinton by a landslide.

     Within the context this wild climate, the viewer is introduced to three main characters. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is Boxer Santeros, a famous actor (clearly modeled after Arnold Schwarzenegger) who wakes up in the desert with a mysterious case of amnesia. He finds his way back to his native Los Angeles, trying to stay under government radar in the fear that he was kidnapped by a covert organization. In L.A., he returns home to porn-star Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), who he is cheating on his wife (Senator Frost’s daughter, played by Mandy Moore) with. Krysta and Boxer intend to make a movie together, in which he will star as protagonist Jericho Kane. In order to research the role of Jericho, Boxer studies a man who he assumes to be LAPD Officer Roland Taverner (Seann William Scott). What Boxer doesn’t know is that Roland is actually Ronald, Roland’s twin brother, who is conspiring with a group of Neo-Marxists led by his mother and Krysta Now in an elaborate political plot. Ronald will commit a racist crime as a cop while Boxer is with him, which will in turn make Boxer look bad for being present at the scene. When public opinion of Boxer drops, so will that of his wife and her father, the President-to-be. As a result, Clinton will hopefully reign victorious in the upcoming election and, in the deluded view of the Neo-Marxists, perhaps restore justice in America.

    Oh, and I forgot to include a few more key plot elements in my synopsis. The whole thing is narrated by an Iraq War Veteran played by Justin Timberlake, who I should also mention performs a karaoke rendition of The Killers’ “All These Things That I Have Done” directly to the camera toward the end of the second act. And then there’s also the fact that, as the plot unfolds to Timberlake’s narration, Boxer comes to believe that he actually is his character, Jericho. Or maybe he really is Jericho, because a real time-rift that was caused by tectonic-plate movement mentioned in his film-script could truly be real, and therefore could have led Boxer to split into two separate people, one in the past and one in the present. (The split would’ve occurred sometime between when he left Los Angeles and when he woke up in the desert.)

     If that all sounds complicated, you haven’t heard the half of it. The main problem with the picture is that Kelly assumes that the audience will confuse complicated for complex and therefore come to regard him as some kind of legit socio-political commentator. Just about everything that Southland Tales has to say about America is left-wing propaganda without any cohesive backing. The movie is an enraged piece of art that cannot justify its own enragement.

     Still, I would be lying if I didn’t say that I thought the whole thing was preposterously entertaining in more ways than one. As conscious as I am of the fact that Southland Tales represents complete cinematic inanity, I have a bit of a soft-spot for it. After all, who else but Richard Kelly would dare to commit the aforementioned vision to the silver-screen? And who else would try to convince studios to finance the project with what appears to be well over $50 million worth of cash? And, if that wasn’t enough, who else would then recruit Sarah Michelle Gellar, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Mandy Moore, Justin Timberlake, Kevin Smith, and Seann William Scott to star in this movie? Truth be told, I admire Kelly as much as I hate him for failing and daring to fail in such an off-the-wall, idiotic way.

     I don’t want to claim that there aren’t many isolated moments of beauty in Southland Tales, because there are. For this reason, the film’s near 150-minute running length flies by rather quickly. Kelly gets career-best performances out of Gellar (who has never been sexier) and Johnson, despite the absurdity of their roles. Of what significance their work is, I dunno. You tell me whether or not acting can be significant even when the film that it belongs to is thoroughly insignificant itself. Regardless, the overall loopy quality that Gellar and Johnson embody here steals a host of scenes. The visual effects and cinematography of the film are also worth mentioning, with particularly striking images coming from a sequence towards the end of the film in a flying-over-Los Angeles sequence involving brothers Ronald and Roland.

     My favorite moments of Southland Tales were those in which I didn’t understand a lick of what was going on. During said moments, I found myself not caught up in the half-assed statements that Kelly tries to make, but rather the movie’s loony atmosphere and appearance. On the whole, however, the film proves a failure that I am able to appreciate only as a basic exercise in chaos. That Southland Tales somehow comes together to form something (even if it isn’t inherently good) is somewhat of a cinematic miracle. I may not like what Kelly says or the manner in which he says it, but I certainly recognize his vision as a complete work of art, which, with so much shit going on in the immediate plot and even more shit taking place in the viewer’s mind, is an accomplishment in and of itself.

-Danny Baldwin, Bucket Reviews

Review Published on: 11.20.2007

Screened on: 11.3.2007 at the ArcLight Cinemas in Hollywood, CA.


Southland Tales is rated R and runs 144 minutes.

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